It’s 12 January 1948. You’re walking down the road in Manor Park, east London, when you pass a grocery store that’s just opened. Curious, you venture inside. At first you’re puzzled by the lack of service. Then you notice other shoppers picking items off the shelves. You shrug and pick up a basket.
You peruse the aisles and see that baked beans are on offer – you’ve never seen them so cheap. But as you pick up a can and squirrel it away into your basket, you can’t shake the feeling that the shopkeeper is watching you.
Happily, you need not worry. The sign above the door reads “London Co-operative Society”, and you are standing in Britain’s first supermarket. Helping yourself is the order of the day.
At first, timid housewives found shopping in these new supermarkets daunting. After all, shopping etiquette was ingrained in British society. You went in and chatted with the shopkeeper, while the shop assistant ran around dividing and measuring out the items on your list. You didn’t handle the goods – you might be called a thief.
Of course, attending to one customer at a time is hardly economical. But while Americans had been enjoying helping themselves since the 1930s, self-service didn’t come to Britain until after the Second World War (although the London Co-op ran a trial in 1942).
With the arrival of self-service came the ‘stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ approach to retail, and prices fell. 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.
Changing consumer habits came as a boon to supermarkets. But today, with customers shopping online and preferring to visit smaller, in-town stores, the big supermarkets are finding out what it’s like to be on the wrong side of change.