Visionaries rarely get their due and supermarkets are fascinating.
Whenever making it to a new country, it seems the sightseeing I find myself engaging in wanes from the epic and grand, instead turning to the mundane and ordinary. Enter the supermarket. Through a tumultuous past and half way across the world, the supermarket stands firm in China. A photo gallery is located at the end of the article.
It’s not an old concept in context. The first one on record was a Piggly Wiggly in Memphis that opened in 1916. Memphis has given a good deal to the world by now, making a home for it’s own barbecue, Piggly Wiggly, and Elvis to name a few. But one of the former residents that doesn’t often float around in pop culture was Clarence Saunders. And no, he’s not Colonel Sanders.
I like to think of Clarence Saunders as the Nikola Tesla of food shopping. Prior to his invention of a self-service market, a supermarket so to speak, all shopping was somewhere more than laborious. Finding a market that isn’t self-service is a throw back in itself, a worthy one. The majority of markets in Mumbai seemed to follow the older model. Stand at the counter for awhile, ask for something from a salesman, wait for salesman to tell the boy next to him to go find the product and then fork over the cash. Though I enjoy this form of shopping, it seems Mr. Saunders had a vision all his own. Actually, he had several of them.
To begin with the less eccentric and move to the obscure will be the route. The first Piggly Wiggly began Saunders on the track for patent glory. After the success of the self-service market, Saunders looked for a more practical invention and is now credited with making turnstiles and baffle gates popular. We have Saunders to thank for properly ordering our flow in and out of the store.
Saunders was not satisfied. Like Tesla, he was eventually driven into the ground by larger more powerful interests that bankrupted him, taking Piggly Wiggly away and building it into Porky with a white hat Americana glory. And that began his attempt at a comeback.
Keedoozle. It loosely stands for “Key Does All,” and this supermarket was truly streamlined. So much so that it was automated. It never quite ripened into fruition but the concept was the first of its kind. Customers were handed a key and a punch card. Products were displayed in glass cases waiting for the key and punch card to be inserted at the bottom of the case. The number of times the key was triggered meant the number of times the punch card was marked. This action was recorded by machinery that assembled the order and delivered the products to the checkout on a conveyor belt. All that was left for the customer to do was to head to the checkout where the punch card was read by a machine that gave them their final total. Shopping experience finished. It was intended to be faster and easier but how long it takes to explain may be the reason why it didn’t work out so well.
That being said, Time magazine covered the opening of Keedoozle in 1948 to much awaited anticipation:
Last week, confident that he had ironed out his Keedoozle’s kinks, Saunders staged another grand opening. Customers thought it was worth waiting for. They liked the pinball-type lights that danced when they inserted the keys in the merchandise slots. Better still, they liked Saunders’ prices, 10% to 15% cheaper than competitors’. – Time, Mon. August 30, 1948
However, I think the best way to envision this monumental undertaking is like a large walk-through vending machine blinking with jackpot lights. And for that mental picture alone, Saunders needs his due.
In all this time, the disheartening projects are almost always the personal ones. Saunders built, partially, a million dollar pink palace in Memphis. He had to give it up in his infamous making and losing of fortunes, but luckily for us, it’s been kept. A museum is housed in it.
Since giving credit is something this article is about, it is right to mention that others played in the supermarket game. The internet is littered with the reference that the Smithsonian credits Michael J. Cullen with the first true supermarket, King Kullen. Soon after, the first supermarket with a parking lot on all sides was developed concreting the bastion of consumerism in a desert of asphalt image. But Saunders still holds the vision.
Others use it to this day and this brings a final note. This publication is avidly not anti-technology but something can be said that Saunders added to the rolling ball down the hill of the destruction of unskilled labor. McDonald’s has automated kitchens ready to go and I could imagine that the only thing stopping it is the concept that people still like other people to touch their food.
It seems contrary but it’s true. Most people don’t like robot food.
Beyond all of that though, Clarence Saunders was on my mind as I walked around the generational great grand-children of his self-service market concept. The photos below are his Chinese descendants.
Click on the gray line to begin viewing the photo gallery.