Grand Opening of Anderson Piggly Wiggly on Fort Avenue
Grand Opening of Anderson Piggly Wiggly on Fort Avenue by Kipp Teague (CC BY-NC-ND)

10 Things You Didn't Know About America's First Self-Service Grocery Store

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Grand Opening of Anderson Piggly Wiggly on Fort Avenue
Grand Opening of Anderson Piggly Wiggly on Fort Avenue by Kipp Teague (CC BY-NC-ND)

Days of Swine and Groceries

In the early 20th century, the entire grocery shopping experience was a chore. Shoppers had to bring a list to a clerk, who would then go around the store, gather up all the requested items and bring them to the shopper, who then had to pay whatever price the clerk quoted. In 1916, however, everything changed when a visionary grocer named Clarence Saunders opened the country's first Piggly Wiggly, forever altering the way Americans buy food. The iconic chain's impact is still evident in grocery stores around the world today. In honor of Saunders' paradigm shift, and the chain's 100-year-plus history, here are 10 things you likely didn't know about America's first grocery store chain.

Related: 17 Grocery Stores We Miss

Piggly Wiggly Facts
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Piggly Wiggly Was a Big Store

On Sept. 6, 1916, the world's first Piggly Wiggly opened to great fanfare at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. Saunders had launched an advertising blitz in the weeks leading up to the grand opening, and the masses were curious about the brand new kind of store that was coming to town. Product volume alone was a curiosity. The original Piggly Wiggly boasted more than 1,000 products in stock — four times the amount you'd find in the average store at that time.

Piggly Wiggly Newsstand, 1959
Piggly Wiggly Newsstand, 1959 by Allen (CC BY-NC)

Customers Were Free to Browse

When customers started filing into Piggly Wiggly, they marveled at the ability to do something they had never done before: peruse the merchandise on their own. Instead of rattling off a list to a clerk who then went off to gather up the goods, Piggly Wiggly customers could walk around the store, browse, and choose their own products. Some habit-driven customers asked shelf-stocking clerks to get their goods, but they politely refused.

Related: Here's What the First Walmart Stores Actually Sold

Lines Were Short
Source: eBay

Lines Were Short

The new format immediately had a huge impact on the entire grocery shopping experience — most notably, it made the process much, much faster. Before, customers had to wait in long lines while a clerk — sometimes the only one working — collected every item for one customer at a time while the others waited for their turn. With those tasks now farmed out to the customers doing the buying, those long, slow lines suddenly became lightning fast.

Related: These Stores Are Getting Rid of Cashiers and Checkout Lanes

Piggly Wiggly Ad
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pricing Was Clear

The old way of doing things gave the store clerk total discretion over what to charge each customer, and prices were often inconsistent and unclear. In Piggly Wiggly, however, each item was marked with a clear price tag. Shoppers knew exactly what they would be paying, and each customer paid exactly the same price for the same item.

Piggly Wiggly Flour Bag
Piggly Wiggly Flour Bag by Andrew Filer (CC BY-SA)

Food Was Pre-Packaged

Another Piggly Wiggly revolution was the concept of individual pre-packaging. Before that, clerks measured out common items like sugar and flour by weight. In Piggly Wiggly, customers could select pre-bagged items from nationally advertised brands right off the shelves.

hydraulic lift, Anderson Piggly Wiggly, Lynchburg
hydraulic lift, Anderson Piggly Wiggly, Lynchburg by Kipp Teague (CC BY-NC-ND)

The Store Was Cheap and Modern

Saunders set his prices with a margin just 14% above cost. That, coupled with buying in such large bulk, allowed him to keep prices low. But customers flocked to Piggly Wiggly in droves not only because costs were lower — it also was a completely unique experience. It was the first store staffed by uniformed employees, the first store with shopping baskets and turnstiles, and the first store that gave customers printed receipts.

Related: 50 Ways to Save at the Grocery Store

Clarence Saunders
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saunders Was Told It Would Never Work

When word of the coming attraction spread around Memphis, regional grocers underestimated the threat that was coming their way. It was widely believed that customers would scoff at the idea of gathering their own goods, weighing their own produce, and carrying their own merchandise around in wooden baskets. Within a few short months, however, Piggly Wiggly raked in $80,000 more than the average grocery store made in the same time period — all while slashing costs by more than two-thirds.

truly vintage Piggly Wiggly and Kroger in Lynchburg, Virginia
truly vintage Piggly Wiggly and Kroger in Lynchburg, Virginia by Kipp Teague (CC BY-NC-ND)

Piggly Wiggly Spread Fast

All of this innovation quickly made the shops of old feel like relics, and Piggly Wiggly didn't stay only in Memphis for long. By the end of that first year, the city was bursting with no fewer than nine Piggly Wigglys and, by 1923, there were nearly 1,300 of them in Tennessee and beyond. There's no shortage of massive, easily accessible grocery stores today, but even still, the original remains. There are still more than 530 Piggly Wiggly stores in 17 states.

Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Danville, Virginia, USA
Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Danville, Virginia, USA by Acroterion (CC BY-SA)

Piggly Wiggly Was the First Store to Franchise

One of Piggly Wiggly's many firsts is that it pioneered the concept of franchising independent grocers to operate under Saunders' self-serve model. The franchising model remains in place today. A representative from Piggly Wiggly LLC says that the company "owns and manages the rights to the Piggly Wiggly name and trademark, but all the stores are independently owned and operated."

Related: 28 Regional Grocery Stores That Shoppers Love

Piggly Wiggly
Piggly Wiggly by MadeByMike (CC BY-NC)

The Origin of the Peculiar Name is a Mystery

No one knows exactly why or how Saunders came up with the offbeat-but-catchy name Piggly Wiggly. The company's site shares a story of Saunders, riding on a train, noticing some piglets struggling to get under a fence, which may have inspired the rhyme. Another piece of lore says that when asked how he came up with the name, Saunders would reply, "So people will ask that very question." However the name came to be, Saunders died in 1953 — and the secret died with him.