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Grocery shoppers should thank Charles Sanders

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Like it or not, to prevent starvation for ourselves or our families, we all spend time in grocery stores.

Regardless of which store or stores you use, how much you spend, what you purchase or how many people you talk to while you’re in there, you can thank one person for the experience.

His name was Charles Saunders, and he lived in Memphis, Tennessee, during the early 1900s.

According to Wikipedia, grocery shopping in that era was much different from today because the self-service concept had not yet been introduced. Back then, a customer would enter the store, walk up to a long wooden counter and hand the grocer a list of items he wished to purchase.

The storekeeper would take the list and begin putting the order together from groceries on the shelves. He might first weigh out a pound of butter and wrap it up in a piece of brown wax paper, then walk over to a row of wooden bins, lift up a lid, scoop out what he thought was about two pounds of sugar and pour it into a paper bag.

One by one, the grocer would gather all of the items on the list and total them up using his pencil and a pad. There were no price tags already on each item.

Finally, after much work, the grocer handed the customer a bill that he either paid right then or at the end of the month.

Try to imagine this same snail-like method of shopping in today’s “super-dyna-whoppin’ ” grocery stores (a comedian Jerry Clower reference).

With millions of people shopping for groceries every day, and many of them either irritated or in a really big hurry, that system could not work today.

Sanders had observed this grocer-centric method as well and thought it wasted time and money. He came up with a simple concept that would transform the grocery industry forever.

Saunders thought it made more sense to have the customer shop for and pick out his own items. Such a store would have wooden shopping baskets and open shelves but no clerks to do the shopping for the customer.

Though so-called experts told Sanders his idea would fail, his first self-service grocery store opened Sept. 6, 1916, under the unusual name of Piggly Wiggly.

While Piggly Wiggly’s self-service concept revolutionized the grocery industry, it was only one of several innovations that Saunders made. Piggly Wiggly was the first grocery chain to provide checkout stands, put employees in uniforms, price mark every item in the store, give shoppers more for their food dollar through high volume/low profit margin retailing, feature a full line of nationally advertised brands and use refrigerator cases to keep produce fresher for longer periods.

Saunders is said to have arrived at the name Piggly Wiggly because he wanted a name that people would remember.

Mission accomplished there.

Piggly Wiggly’s experiment was successful and prompted most other independent and chain grocery stores to change to self-service in the 1920s and 1930s.

At its peak in 1932, the Piggly Wiggly company operated 2,660 stores nationwide.

Today, more than 530 independently owned and operated Piggly Wiggly stores operate in 17 states, including North Carolina.

The 1989 Oscar-winning movie “Driving Miss Daisy” immortalized the name Piggly Wiggly when Miss Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy, went shopping there with Hoke Colburn, played by Morgan Freeman, in 1940s-era Atlanta.

Next time you’re shopping at one of those “super-dyna-whoppin’ ” grocery stores, and chances are you will do so soon, you might want to say a quick little thank-you to the late Charles Saunders for making your buying experience a little bit easier and much, much quicker.

Keith Barnes is a reporter for the Johnstonian News. Email him at kbarnes@johnstoniannews.com.

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