Picture Credit: “Piggly Wiggly” by ilovememphis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


On 6th September 1916, Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis, Tennessee USA.  As you weren’t there at the time, let me fill in some gaps for you.

It was the first true self-service grocery store the world had known. It spawned various familiar supermarket concepts such as checkout stands, individual item price marking and shopping carts. It was the brainchild of Clarence Saunders who took out a patent in 1917 on the concept of the “self-serving store”. Saunders issued franchises to hundreds of grocery retailers for the operation of Piggly Wiggly® stores. These franchised stores were constructed to Saunders’ rigid specifications, operated on a strictly cash basis, and maintained a high standard of quality and cleanliness.

From www.thepig.net:

Piggly Wiggly’s introduction of self-service grocery shopping revolutionised the grocery industry; many of the conveniences and services that American shoppers now enjoy were brought to them first by Piggly Wiggly®.

Saunders’ reason for choosing the intriguing name Piggly Wiggly® remains a mystery; he was curiously reluctant to explain its origin. One story is that he saw from a train window several little pigs struggling to get under a fence, and the rhyming name occurred to him then. Another theory is that it is derived from the nursery rhyme, “This little piggy went to market…

When asked why he had chosen such an unusual name for his organisation, Saunders’ reply was, “So people will ask that very question.” He wanted, and found, a name that would be talked about and remembered.

Britain’s Supermarkets
A little slow on the uptake, it took 32 years for Britain to follow Clarence Saunder’s lead. The self-service supermarket came to Britain on 12th January 1948, when the London Co-operative Society opened a store in Manor Park, following a trial 6 years before. Co-op Food opened Britain’s first fully self-service store in March 1948 in Albert Road, Southsea, near Portsmouth.

With the arrival of self-service came the ‘stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap’* approach to retail, and prices fell.
* credited to Jack Cohen before he founded Tesco

Many of the shops that clung on to the old ways soon found themselves out of business. Premier Supermarkets lost no time in opening a self-service store in Streatham and sales rocketed. Marks & Spencer followed that same year in Wood Green.

What’s next?
Mmuze uses artificial intelligence (AI) to recreate the in-store shopping experience online, through a virtual personal shopping assistant.  This enables customers to interact with a brand – via voice or text conversation – and tell them exactly what they are looking for.  Whether they are searching for a specific dress or want advice on what to wear to a certain event, Mmuze “associates” answer every question that shoppers have, from price to style to material specifications. This prevents them from scrolling through hundreds of items online, making their experience more convenient and personal. They also offer customers personalised suggestions based on their purchase history and the latest trends.

GlobalData predicts that voice purchases will hit €45bn in the UK and US in 2022, and Adobe claims 90% of decision-makers are investing in voice tech, according to Drapers: https://www.drapersonline.com/news/four-tech-innovations-pushing-retail-boundaries

Other innovations identified by Drapers are:

  • Customer engagement platform Preciate uses facial recognition technology to help shop floor staff identify customers as they enter the store. It aims to help brands and retailers offer customers a unique, individualised experience through its tech-driven “loyalty programme”. As an opt-in service, Preciate requires shoppers to enrol with a selfie, which can be taken via a mobile, laptop or in-store. The facial recognition algorithm then notifies staff as soon as shoppers enter the store and recognises them in real-time.
  • Visual AI technology from computer software company Syte allows customers to search and shop for products by uploading an image to show what they are looking for, rather than textually describing it. By uploading an image to a retailer’s website or app – be it from a brand campaign, random person on the street or magazine cutting – customers can browse and buy visually similar items that are currently in stock.
  • Measurement technologies enable MySizeID to advise customers on their best size for every single item that they are looking at. Arguing that “customers shouldn’t rely on varying size carts”, MySize uses an algorithm to measure customers’ precise body fit using their smartphone sensors, without the need for a camera (instructions on how to take images of each body part are included). You can see a video on this at: https://youtu.be/od64G7CJr1o.

(Famous) Last Words
Covid-19 has hastened the innovation in online retailing. I can’t wait to see all the above happening. Then we can move on to the next big thing.

Martin Pollins
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