If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t know that 101 years ago last week (in 1916) the first self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis.
Yep, Piggly Wiggly was the first grocery store to let customers choose their own
products. Before Piggly Wiggly, you handed your grocery list to a clerk who walked around the store and selected your items for you from the shelves and then rang up your bill.
The Old Way
And you thought that system ended with Hoss & Little Joe Cartwright leaving the
Ponderosa and heading into Virginia City where they parked the buckboard outside the general store and went in with Hop Sing’s grocery list. The scene went something like this:
Hoss: Percy, here’s the list from Hop Sing. Dang it, I can’t read Chinese.
Percy: It’s in English, you ham head. You’ve got it upside down. Just give it to me …
Little Joe: Hoss, I’m heading over to the saloon.
Hoss: What for?
Little Joe: To check out a library book, of course. Dude, what do you THINK I’m going to a saloon for? I’m going to get a whiskey, flirt with that new school teacher from Richmond, get in a fight with some cattle rustlers, and just before I get killed you rush in and save my butt.
Hoss: Dadgummit, Little Joe. I’m tired of you gettin’ the pretty girls just because you got hair like Joel Osteen. And I’m tired of playing your bodyguard and breaking up your fights because you’re so sensitive about hearing comments about your soft hands and tight-fittin’ pants.
Percy: Hoss, you go on over to the horse stables and get your hair cut, and I’ll have your supplies together by the time you get back.
Little Joe: Do you think I’ve got time for a mani-pedi?
Hoss: Has Pa ever told you that you were adopted?
Little Joe: Make sure you have Jergens lotion on the list. And I have a coupon.
Percy: Lord knows I wish I’d taken that job at Ikea.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
It was 101 years ago that a grocery clerk named Clarence Saunders thought this list & fetch practice was inefficient, labor-intensive, and made products more expensive. He thought customers should be able to choose items themselves and order them online on Amazon. Sorry, I’m jumping ahead.
Anyway, Saunders believed that customers should have a variety of products and prices to choose from. This quickly led to there being 23 different types of Cheerios and 19 different flavors of Purina Cat Chow.
The flagship store in Memphis was called a “self-service” store and customers were free to walk around, select their groceries, and then pay cash for them at the counter. The store was such a hit that by 1932, there were more than 2,500 Piggly Wiggly franchises.
The first shopping carts with four flapping wheels all heading in different directions made their debut in 1937 thanks to Piggly Wiggly. The store’s success inspired other self-serve stores with goofy names, like Handy Andy, Helpy-Selfy, Jitney Jungle, and Hogly Wogly. (Hogly Wogly was a shameless rip-off of Piggly Wiggly name. I don’t know how those people slept at night.)
Saunders built a pink marble mansion in Memphis and called it the Pink Palace. (Have you noticed that pigs in children’s picture books, cartoons, and in barbecue ads are always smooth and pink? But have you ever seen a smooth pink pig in captivity or in the wild? No, you haven’t; because they’re hairy, dirty, and dark brown. But I digress …)
Because of stock mismanagement Saunders eventually lost control of Piggly Wiggly and never completed construction on his mansion. The city of Memphis ultimately bought the mansion, re-painted it, thank God, and turned it into a natural history museum with a full walk-through model of the original Piggly Wiggly store. With an attraction like that in the heart of Memphis I don’t understand why the tourists are lined up to get into Graceland or walk around Beale Street.
So this week when you’re running your cart around Kroger or just dashing into Whole Foods to get a box of non-dairy, fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, taste-free crackers, say a word of thanks to Clarence Saunders.
And tell the cashier, “Just put it on my tab.”
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin
(www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at