MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It was revolutionary in 1916 to send customers with shopping baskets into a maze of aisles stacked head-high with tins, sacks and boxes of groceries. But Clarence Saunders was never hesitant to try new ideas.
On its opening day, Saunders lured hundreds into the Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis.
Although it wasn't apparent then, the age of pickle barrels, white-smocked grocers and eager boys who delivered their wares on bicycles was on its way out.
A full-size replica of the world's first self-service grocery, tiny enough to snuggle into a single department of a modern supermarket, is housed in the Pink Palace, a Memphis museum a dozen miles from the street corner where it opened Sept. 11, 1916.
The original store culminated the planning of the business genius Saunders, who made and lost several million dollars in his colorful career. It all began with Piggly Wiggly and ended in a flash of electronic gimmicks that never quite succeeded.
Saunders, a veteran of the wholesale grocery business, patented the store and its maze-like floor plan although immitators immediately popped up across the nation.
The maze forced shoppers to examine every item in the store. It was an important part of Saunders' marketing plan, since it was the first time grocery buyers had ever been able to choose for themselves.
Before Piggly Wiggly, groceries were ordered and delivered by grocers and clerks. Customers seldom touched merchandise until it was sacked and carried into the kitchen at home.
Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly based on two premises: that people wanted to save money and see what they were buying.
'In those days you sent a servant or telephoned an order to the grocery and a clerk picked up the items and delivered them,' said Gary Burhop of Malone and Hyde, a modern grocery and drug distributor. 'You never saw what head of lettuce you were getting, never knew if your tomatoes were bruised.
'Saunders told the public, 'There is nothing demeaning about shopping for yourself,'' Burhop said.
Burhop's firm was a major contributor to the museum exhibit and helped locate at least half the products reproduced for the store which features between 2,500 and 3,000 of the items sold by Piggly Wiggly in 1916.
When Saunders opened the store, his personally written advertisements challenged consumers to forget their pride and carry their own split wood shopping baskets.
'The ads were constantly pleading with the public -- taunting them to shop at Piggly Wiggly and to shop for themselves,' Burhop said.
The main attraction, Burhop said, were the considerably lower prices than those of Piggly Wiggly's competitors.
In the Piggly Wiggly, a pound of sliced bacon sold for 30 cents. A one-pound can of coffee brought 28 cents. A 24-pound sack of flour cost from 92 cents for plain to $1.10 for extra fancy.
For 8 cents, a shopper could take home a can of corn or a box of corn flakes.
Burhop said the prices weren't as attractive as they appear today. At the turn of the century, food prices took an even bigger bite of family income than today. Food took about 25 cents of every earned dollar then, compared to about 17 cents today. But still, The Piggly Wiggly could offer shoppers a better deal.
'Saunders figured price was the No. 1 consideration and quality of goods No. 2. Apparently he devised an idea to put the two together, the outgrowth was Piggly Wiggly.'
Saunders offered a simple explanation why his groceries cost less: 'No credit, no delivery, no clerk to do what customers should do for themselves.'
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A full page newspaper ad that preceded the opening of Piggly Wiggly announced five contests with prizes of $10 in gold to each winner.
'$10 each in Gold' was given to the 'Lady with the prettiest eyes, prettiest hands, prettiest red hair, the Lady with the noblest face expression and the most stylish looking Lady,' it said.
On its first day, 968 persons filed through the narrow aisles in the store on Jefferson Street, and Saunders' newspaper ad the following day read, 'The Silk Stocking Crowd -- the Crowd with Cotton Stockings and Some possibly Without Stockings... carried away $906.29 in good things to eat.'
That day marked the beginning of a boom. Within a month, Saunders' venture had outgrown its location and the store reopened in a larger building.
By 1923, nearly 1,300 franchises were held nationwide.
Saunders kept close tabs on those franchises and published regular guidelines and instructions to keep them up to his standards.
He forbade marking the price on individual items, insisting instead that the product be stacked on a shelf with the price tag hung on a hook.
In the 'National Standard for Piggly Wiggly Store Conduct and Maintenance,' Saunders warned it was 'positively against the Piggly Wiggly Standard to post a sign on the show windows of a store.' There was, however, one exception.
'A sign of patriotic nature while the World War is on is an allowable exception to this rule,' but only in an inconspicious place, he said.
Saunders' hold over Piggly Wiggly was wrenched away in 1923, not by outside forces, but by himself.
In a daring attempt to corner the market on Piggly Wiggly stock, Saunders' tried to outmaneuver Wall Street. His financial gamble failed and he went bankrupt. The empire he had carefully nurtured had slipped through his fingers.
He also lost the 32-room pink marble mansion he was building on a 155-acre estate in Memphis. The house, which was still incomplete when he lost his fortune, later became the Pink Palace Museum which now holds the Piggly Wiggly replica in a modern addition.
Saunders made several tries at comebacks, the first of which was a chain of groceries called 'Clarence Saunders, Sole Owner of My Name Stores, Inc.' The depression ruined the budding business, but the entrepreneur rebounded in 1937 with an idea too far ahead of its time, 'Keedoozle.'
At Keedoozle stores, customers inserted large keys into glass display cases and grocery items were dropped onto conveyors and shipped to the checkout. But technology wasn't up to the demands of the intricate electrical system, and the effect of World War II quashed the venture.
Before his death in 1953, Saunders lined up investors for one last try at grocery store automation called 'Foodelectric.' That concept was never put into practice.