Share This Episode
Our American Stories Lee Habeeb Logo

How Piggly Wiggly Created the Modern Supermarket

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 30, 2023 3:04 am

How Piggly Wiggly Created the Modern Supermarket

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

On-Demand Podcasts NEW!

This broadcaster has 1356 podcast archives available on-demand.

Broadcaster's Links

Keep up-to-date with this broadcaster on social media and their website.

March 30, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Clarence Saunders revolutionized the way people shopped. He developed “self-service” grocery shopping in his Piggly Wiggly stores at a time when store assistants usually collected products for their customers. By introducing checkouts, clearly priced goods, and itemized receipts, he set the foundations for the supermarkets of today. Mike Freeman is the author of Clarence Saunders & the Founding of Piggly Wiggly: The Rise and Fall of a Memphis Maverick.

Support the show (

See for privacy information.


Luckyland Casino asking people what's the weirdest place you've gotten lucky? Lucky? In line at the deli, I guess?

Haha, in my dentist's office. More than once, actually. Do I have to say?

Yes, you do. In the car, before my kid's PTA meeting. Really?

Yes! Excuse me, what's the weirdest place you've gotten lucky? I never win and tell.

Well, there you have it. You can get lucky anywhere playing at Play for free right now.

Are you feeling lucky? No purchase necessary. Fully prohibited by law. 18 plus. Terms and conditions apply.

See website for details. And we continue here with our American Stories. Grabbing a basket while grocery shopping may seem second nature today, but the idea was once groundbreaking and that was far from the only thing that changed when Piggly Wiggly, the first modern American supermarket opened over a hundred years ago. On September 6, 1916, hundreds of curious shoppers came out for the opening of a new grocery store at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. And we broadcast here in Oxford, Mississippi.

Memphis is only one hour practically due north. For weeks, they'd seen billboards and read newspaper ads about this grocery store with the funny name that promised an entirely new shopping experience, one that would, according to its owner, forever change the retail grocery business. Greg Hengler sat down with Mike Freeman near the location of that first Piggly Wiggly in downtown Memphis. Mike Freeman is the author of Clarence Saunders and the founding of Piggly Wiggly, the rise and fall of a Memphis Maverick. I took a job at a restaurant in downtown Memphis that happened to be at 79 Jefferson. And that was the first location of a Piggly Wiggly store. It was an interesting fact.

You know, I became interested in that. My employer wanted me to do some research because he was curious as well, you know, what happened in the building and such. It's important to know what Saunders did differently was in the old days, if you went into a store to shop, you couldn't just reach out and pick out your own groceries. You had clerks do that for you. So we had to wait for them to, you tell the clerk what you want and then they would bring it to you. And Saunders thought, well, this is really slow.

This is so inefficient. And all this tied in with brand advertising before the turn of the century. You had all these brands we still recognize. Kellogg's cereal, Van Camp, Pork and Beans, all these companies were selling their products in stores. And Saunders knew, well, you don't need a clerk to tell you what cereal you like. You like Kellogg's cereal? There it is.

You get it yourself. The most important thing to him is I could sell more groceries at less cost because I could pay fewer people. Saunders grew up from a family that was poor. In fact, there's one story that a neighbor bought Clarence a pair of shoes. And then when Saunders had money later in life, he sent a check to that family for a number of years because they helped him out and he really needed it. So he knew what it was like to suffer hardship and carried that with him.

You know, that probably motivated him as much as anything to do something. Saunders became a traveling salesman for a wholesale company. So he would call upon grocers and Saunders developed a reputation for being a bit brash. He would go into a store and he would tell the store owner, he says, you know, you would sell more vegetables if you displayed them this way.

It's the way you had it. And some thought, well, what does this guy know? So not everybody appreciated his advice, but it shows that he was already thinking about trying ways to do things a little bit better than before. There was a man in Memphis who built a chain of stores, Mr. Bowers stores. They were small like corner grocery stores, but every Bowers store looked exactly the same as the signs in the front and the layout of the store where the groceries were placed. So each Bowers store was identical.

And that was an innovation, too. If you went from one store to the other, you'd know exactly where to find what you wanted to buy because everything was in the same place. Despite, you know, in different locations.

Saunders, he absorbed these ideas. That's the principle of chain store. Everything is alike as much as it can be. So if you're comfortable with what they do, then you'll shop at the chain store, no matter where that location is.

So you could go into a town where you unfamiliar to you and find your favorite grocery, you know, whatever the business is or Starbucks for that matter and get exactly what you want. That's the whole principle change or Bowers did that before Saunders. So clearly learned from Bowers how to manage a chain store business. The one thing that Bowers did not do was Arrange things customers to pick out themselves. He still had clerks and Saunders thought this was inefficient way of doing things.

And he was kind of sarcastic. He says, you know, in a store is not very busy. The poor customer can't get the attention of a clerk because they're busy goofing off in the back room. He said that happens or they're so busy like during Christmas season. You know, everyone's shopping in the store so busy.

They can't handle the orders properly. The arrangement of the store Bowers and the older merchants had was as you walked up to a counter. And once you had your clerk's attention, you would rattle off what you wanted. And then he would go about the the rest of the store, picking out the items you wanted and bring them to the front.

And then you transact business and off you go and Saunders thought, well, you know, they don't need a clerk to tell them that Campbell's soup is good or if you just put it on a shelf, they can find it themselves. He took this journey to Terre Haute, Indiana, to look at a store that he was told was unique and designs differently. And he came back a bit disappointed.

It wasn't really anything special at all. And Saunders told the story often. He said on the way back, he saw this mother pig at a farm and he saw all these piglets trying to feed off the mother pig and it reminded him of customers trying to attract attention of a clerk. And then the idea popped in his head. He had the name Piggly Wiggly just from seeing this pig. Okay, that's the name. And then he went about designing.

Well, how are we going to actually do this? You'd have to practically rebuild the interior of the store to change it to self-service. Piggly Wiggly, you know, that was his name. It was a very unusual name.

I mean, I think it was perfect for what he was trying to do because he was being different. And then he would, he began writing advertisements where Piggly Wiggly became a character. Piggly Wiggly goes to town, you know, Piggly Wiggly does this. And so, you know, that's how he built his brand identity. He made a story out of an imaginary pig that went shopping.

I'll read part of one. Piggly Wiggly, ain't that a funny name? The fellow that got up that name must have a screw loose somewhere. All this may be so, but Piggly Wiggly knows its own business best and its business will be this. To have no store clerks gab and smirk while folks are standing around 10 deep to get waited on. Every customer will be her own clerk. So if she wants to talk to a can of tomatoes and kill her time, all right and well.

But it seems likely this would be a mighty lonesome chat. Saunders addressed customer fears. You know, it used to be, if you went into certain stores in the old days, and, you know, the clerk might put his thumb on the scale so you'd pay extra for tomatoes or potatoes or whatever, or they'd sell you food that was out of date. And Saunders thought all that was just, just wrong.

It was just not good business. He could sell more groceries just by being honest. And he was very proud. He talked a lot about labeling prices on everything. So you walk in and you go to the canned soup aisle, you know exactly what the price of that soup is. And it didn't matter what store you're in, one of the stores, they all price things about the same. And it didn't matter who you were or whether the clerk knew you or not. You got the same price.

When we come back, more of Mike Freeman telling the story of Clarence Saunders, the founder of Piggly Wiggly, here on Our American Story. My kids' PTA meeting. Really?

Yes. Excuse me, what's the weirdest place you've gotten lucky? I never win and tell.

Well, there you have it. You can get lucky anywhere playing at Play for free right now.

Are you feeling lucky? No purchase necessary. Fully prohibited by law. 18 plus terms and conditions apply.

See website for details. And we continue with Our American Stories and with author Mike Freeman telling the story of Piggly Wiggly and its founder, Clarence Saunders. Let's continue with Mike. He knew he was taking a less profit and he probably had people in the grocery business say, well, you can't make any money, you're not selling high enough, you're not making enough profit. But he was thinking of volume, you know, and he could open more stores, you open the more volume you have. And then, you know, one of the benefits of self-service is you are selling more goods per day. And that helps eliminate the problem of spoiled food or expired food. And Saunders was aware of that. And he would advertise to people and say, this is what I'm doing, I'm going to treat you fair. I mean, now you can't imagine going in the store and not having a label on it.

This is 32 cents or whatever. Can't imagine it. But for, you know, the 20th century, that was commonplace. You know, once you label everything, then no grocery store can hide. His competitors are thinking, oh, you know, you're going to have to do something different. You know, he proved right there that first year that he had about eight or nine stores in Memphis and Bowers had over 40. And he outsold Bowers stores simply because he made it easier for people to shop.

And they just started swarming into the big wiglets. You know, he's one of those rare individuals that has an idea that worked. And it transformed part of our society. I don't say he's great as Henry Ford, but Ford decided, well, why? Why can't we put an engine in this little carriage and then hook it up to some wheels? And then we don't need a horse and buggy anymore. We have a car. Change the world.

Saunders isn't of that level of success. But I think he had the same mind where he thought, well, let's do something a little different here. The old ways are, yeah, you can do a little faster, a little bit better than that. And that's what Piggly Wiggly was. Grocery store is a version of the Model T. It's interesting is that next year he started franchising.

And he actually filed for several patents, several patents. But he started selling the idea that, well, you guys down in Arkansas, Mississippi, you can build a pig wiggle. There's towns all over the south that were large enough to support a couple of grocery stores.

And then that proceeded very rapidly, selling franchises all over the place. You could argue that the founder of Wal-Mart did virtually the same thing. He put a Wal-Mart and medium sized towns.

You know, the town doesn't have a Wal-Mart and it's kind of not a town. But having a store like that in your community, hiring the local folks to work in the store, probably manage the store, it built a loyalty for that brand that Wal-Mart still exists. The difference between Walton and Saunders is Walton never lost his business.

He held on to it. I think Saunders had a lot of the same attitudes, same personality in some way. He wanted to be that champion. But in the end, he didn't keep that business long enough. Right now, most people don't know who Saunders is.

Saunders achieved a level of celebrity and wealth that most people only dream of. He's most famous for the pink palace is a building. I don't know how many square feet it is. Well, they've added on to it, but a majority of that 36,000 square feet is what he built. It was to have a swimming pool. It was to have everything a rich person would want. Saunders tried to outsmart traders of Wall Street. And to explain it simply, he didn't realize they wrote the rules of trade. There was no governing agency overseeing financial trade that we have now. It was whatever certain people, what we call Wall Street, decided to do is what was done.

They made the rules among themselves. I have trouble sometimes describing a short sale. It's just a stock maneuver where different people in the financial business spread rumors that a company's in trouble, that the stock's not worth what it's listing at now.

And Saunders thought that was horrible. Piggly Wiggly had overexpanded and there was a franchise or two that got bankrupt. That was all the trigger that these short sellers needed. And he started this campaign as take the shares out of the hands of these Wall Street thieves or wolves. And he started a buying campaign in Memphis. You know, save Piggly Wiggly from Memphis. Most people in Memphis or, you know, any city outside of New York probably thought about Wall Street saying it was Edith. It was sort of a kind of a villainous place.

And he was playing on that. You know, don't let these thieves take our Piggly Wiggly away from us. So everyone invested in Saunders' scheme to buy all the shares and hold them. Well, he pushed these these traders into a panic because whatever they borrow, they have to pay. And if he's buying all the shares, they have to come to him to repay what they owe him.

I mean, he was trying to trap them. And the board of directors of the Stock Exchange in New York kept Saunders from doing that and let the traders off the hook. They could change the rules. See, there is no government agency overseeing stock trade.

Whatever the board of directors thought was legal was illegal. And especially if they had friends who got caught up in the scheme and begging, you know, don't let us die out here. Well, we'll let Saunders die. You know, they don't know him. They don't care about him. He's not part of their social group or anything like that at all. It's just some hillbilly from Tennessee thought he knew what he was doing. They just, you know, interpreted rules to let him die. So he had borrowed all that money instead of gaining what he thought would be hundreds of millions of dollars.

He had nothing. Twelve million is a lot of money today to imagine what it was like in 1923. What Saunders had done, and there were people that really liked him because he was, you know, become very famous, was that he had begged Memphians to pool together money to pay off this debt so that Piggly Wiggly could get back to normal operating under his leadership. And people did. They held rallies for Save Piggly Wiggly from Memphis. That was the campaign. Not for Saunders. He was careful to say, Save Piggly Wiggly from Memphis.

And he had a point there, too. I mean, you know, there's a lot of jobs in Memphis now because of this store, this business. And then he made the dumb mistake of putting money into this, what we now know as the Pink Palace, which was an extravagant home. You know, the people that invested in Piggly Wiggly must have been shocked. What in the world are you doing? We're taking time away from our business, spending our money to bail you out and you're building this stupid house.

You don't have time for that anymore. How did they find out about it? Well, a workman had been injured and the newspaper published a story.

Holy cow, you know, they couldn't believe it. It was a terrible mistake he made. Cost him. Well, I mean, he tried again to make money and he did, but. I mean, he's still famous for what?

Piggly Wiggly. He lost, he only ran the company for six years. I guess that the story is remarkable in itself is that he started with one store. Six years later, he had a thousand, a substantial chain. I mean, he was successful. He did build something that was unique.

He just didn't hold on to it. He would be Sam Walton today or his memory would be as big as Sam Walton. If he had just held on to Piggly Wiggly like Walton held on to Wal-Mart.

The most fitting memorial to him is the ordinary self-service store. Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart in 1962. By the end of his life in 1992, Walton owned the largest retail merchandising company in the world. In his autobiography, Sam Walton Made in America. He credited the enormous success of his retail stores to the principle of self-service.

His brief description of the benefits that self-service gave to him and his desire to pass on the savings to his customers seemed to be a near match to Saunders own words two generations before. During the past 25 years supermarkets and large merchandise stores have become popular in nearly every country in Europe, Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa. In an odd way Clarence Saunders prophetic slogan for Piggly Wiggly all over the world has come true. And great job on the piece as always by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Mike Freeman who wrote the book Clarence Saunders and the founding of Piggly Wiggly and what a story and that he started the idea of pricing and transparency and volume so that we could lower profits on each individual item but make up for that with volume and that is indeed what Sam Walton did. There's no doubt that Sam took a lot of the ideas of Piggly Wiggly and scaled them to a much larger operation. The story of Piggly Wiggly the story of Clarence Saunders here on Our American Stories. Leftovers or the DMV or house cleaning or Chumba Casino always brings the fun play over a hundred different games online for free from anywhere. You could redeem some serious prizes Chumba Live the Chumba life.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-02 01:33:50 / 2023-04-02 01:42:39 / 9

Get The Truth Mobile App and Listen to your Favorite Station Anytime