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The Bizarre Story of Piggly Wiggly, the First Self-Service Grocery Store

What’s in a name?

A Piggly Wiggly in 1939. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Self-serve grocery stores saved shoppers money and made financial sense. The one question is why their innovator named the first one Piggly Wiggly.

On this day in 1916, the first Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, the chain has more than 530 stores across 17 states, according to its website. Its founding is one of the stranger stories in the history of retail. But its founder Clarence Saunders was clearly onto something—today, self-service grocery stores are the norm.

Saunders was a bit of an iconoclast. For the store’s opening ceremonies, writes Mike Freeman for the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Saunders promised to hold a “beauty contest” that he advertised in local newspapers. “At the door Saunders shook their hands and gave to their children flowers and balloons,” Freeman writes. “Newspaper reporters posing as contest judges awarded five and ten dollar gold coins to every woman, while the supply lasted. A brass band serenaded the visitors in the lobby.”

This enthusiastic greeting was necessary because Saunders was trying something completely new. Before Piggly Wiggly, groceries were sold at stores where a clerk would assemble your order for you, weighing out dry goods from large barrels. Even chain stores used clerks. 

Although the chain store model helped keep costs down, the University of Michigan Library writes, the “small army of clerks” necessary to fill orders were expensive, the university writes, and at least part of that cost was passed on to the consumer.

Saunders’s model cut costs by cutting out the clerks. Shoppers on that first day did see some employees stocking shelves, Freeman writes, “but they politely refused to select merchandise for visitors.” Just like today, a shopper picked up a basket (though Piggly Wiggly’s were made of wood, not plastic) and went through the store to purchase everything. By the end of that first year there were nine Piggly Wiggly locations around Memphis.

“One day Memphis shall be proud of Piggly Wiggly… And it shall be said by all men… That the Piggly Wigglies shall multiply and replenish the earth with more and cleaner things to eat,” Saunders said a few months after the store’s opening, according to Freeman.

As for the name, nobody knows. “He was curiously reluctant to explain its origin,” Piggly Wiggly’s corporate history reports. “One story says that, while riding a train, he looked out his window and saw several little pigs struggling to get under a fence, which prompted him to think of the rhyme.” Another option is branding, Piggly Wiggly writes: “Someone once asked him why he had chosen such an unusual name for his organization, to which he replied, ‘So people will ask that very question.’”

The year after the first store opened, Saunders secured his concept with a series of patents belonging to his Piggly Wiggly Corporation. Though his model quickly took off, he wasn’t at the helm for very long. According to Piggly Wiggly, not long after he franchised the Piggly Wiggly idea Saunders started issuing public stock in the company. As a result, he lost control of it early in the 1920s. But he wasn’t done redesigning the grocery business. He later tried to introduce concepts like Keedoozle and Foodelectric, fully automated grocery stores, didn’t take off. Must have been the names.

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