October, 2013. Memphis, TN. The Pink Pig Changes Shopping Forever.

Posted on October 15, 2013


pigIf you’ve been to a big box lately for groceries – or even a little box in a little town – you probably filled your cart as quickly as possible and made your escape, hopefully before you succumb to the shopper’s curse, impulse buying.

If you’re looking for someone to blame for cart-clogged aisles and long check-out lines, you can blame Clarence Saunders.

Saunders was born in 1881, the son of poor tobacco farmers. He became interested in the grocery business while clerking in a general store at the tender age of 14, eventually quitting school when the store owner offered him free room and board in exchange for labor.

He came to Memphis, TN in 1905, and by 1910 had become a partner in a grocery wholesale company.

At that time groceries were sold very differently than they are today. You walked into a store and presented a clerk with a list of what you wanted.  The clerk pulled those items off shelves located behind the counter, or from the storeroom in back. He (or she) weighed out flour and sugar, ground coffee beans, and cut cheese off big wedges, then added up your total with a pencil on the back of a paper sack. If there were several customers in the store, well – you just had to wait your turn.

I have a faint memory of going into just such a store in Vicksburg, Michigan – Carvell’s Grocery – in the late 1940’s, peering up at the canned goods stacked on high shelves behind the counter.

pig wig 2Well anyway, Saunders thought he had a better idea, and in 1916 opened the country’s first entirely self-service grocery store in downtown Memphis. He called his store, Piggly Wiggly. When asked why he chose this whimsical name, he replied, “So people will ask that very question.” In his new cafeteria-style grocery, Saunders essentially moved the stockroom from the back to the front of the store and allowed customers to roam the aisles and select their own groceries.pig wig 1

The store was an immediate financial success – customers could get in and out quickly, and fewer clerks were needed. Multiple customers could shop at the same time, and -surprise – began spending more at each visit as they quickly fell victim to the previously unknown phenomenon of impulse shopping.

Saunders patented his self-service concept, and began franchising Piggly Wiggly stores.  Almost overnight the chain grew to more than a thousand stores, becoming the nation’s largest grocery retailer.

pink palaceHis company’s skyrocketing success brought great wealth to Saunders, some of which he plowed into the construction of a bright pink mansion in Memphis — pink being the color of the happy little porker on the sign over each Piggly Wiggly.

Then things went wrong.

A stock dispute in 1922 drove Saunders into bankruptcy and he lost his house, which was never furnished or lived in. He left the company in a swirl of lawsuits and started another chain of groceries, Clarence Saunders Pacific Stores, which went bankrupt during the Great Depression.

But Clarence was not finished. Nor was he out of ideas.

He opened the first fully-automated store in 1937 – again, with a nonsense name –  Keedoozle. Likened to a walk-through vending machine, customers gazed at displays enclosed in glass boxes and made their choices by inserting a key given to them upon entry into the case’s keyhole. The merchandise was then mechanically dropped onto a conveyor belt, which whisked it to the check-out station.  However, this concept depended on a lot of machinery, which tended to break down during the busiest shopping periods. The store – located in Memphis – lasted about 10 years before falling into bankruptcy.

In his last attempt at streamlining the food-buying process, he came up with an idea called Foodelectric, which involved loaning customers a primitive computer-like device which was stuck into slots in display cases, releasing the item and recording its cost. Foodelectric never opened its doors.

Clarence Saunders died in October of 1953.

replicaToday, more than 600 Piggly Wiggly stores remain in America, all of which are independently owned. Saunders’ Memphis mansion, dubbed the Pink Palace, has been converted into a wonderful museum, which includes a walk-through replica of the first Piggly Wiggly.

Unfortunately, Saunders didn’t live long enough to see his self-service ideas become the accepted standard throughout the entire retail industry.  He may have been a bit wacky and way ahead of his time, but Clarence Saunders definitely paved the way for shopping as we know it today.