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Market Disrupted: How Piggly Wiggly Revolutionized Grocery Shopping

Walking the aisles of your local supermarket may feel like a pretty mundane task. But 100 years ago, it was downright revolutionary.

On September 6, 1916, hundreds of curious shoppers came out for the opening of a new grocery store at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. A festive atmosphere greeted them, complete with a beauty contest and a brass band. Smartly dressed employees handed out flowers to the ladies and balloons to children. The store—located on a busy commercial stretch just three blocks east of the river—was the perfect excuse for some afternoon shopping, and maybe a stroll along the waterfront.

But what drew so many people that day wasn’t the location or the festivities. For weeks, they’d seen billboards and read newspaper ads about this grocery store with the funny name that promised an entirely new shopping experience—one that would, according to its owner, forever change the retail grocery business.

SETTING UP SHOP

Up until that point, retail stores all operated according to the same model: Customers placed their order with a clerk, who would then gather and bag all their items and total up the cost. With its "self-service" model, the Piggly Wiggly on Jefferson Avenue would do away with the clerks and let customers do something they’d never done before: select the products themselves.

Upon entering the store, shoppers found themselves standing before a brightly lit showroom floor. After walking through a swinging door, they followed a pathway that led them through four aisles stacked high with more than 1000 products—everything from canned vegetables to cornflakes, bags of flour to jars of preserves. National brands like Campbell’s soup and Walker Baker & Co. chocolate bars sat within arms’ reach. For the first time, they could pick their own produce and weigh it on store scales. A refrigerator case with cabinet doors invited them to pick out a tub of butter or a bottle of milk. Instead of ordering flour by weight, to be measured out by a store employee, they found pre-bagged flour in neat stacks. All of the prices were clearly marked with tags hanging over each item, allowing customers to perform a side-by-side comparison of different brands.

Once they’d selected their goods, shoppers arrived at a counter where an employee manned an adding machine and a register. Cash was the only accepted payment method. After paying, shoppers then received something else many of them had never before seen: a printed receipt.

An ad from 1928. genibee via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Grocery managers throughout Memphis thought the Piggly Wiggly was a joke. But the man behind the concept, successful businessman Clarence Saunders, was very serious. The Virginia native built his career in the cutthroat Memphis wholesaling business. He rose quickly through the ranks by excelling at two roles: salesman and business consultant. And he brought those skills to the Piggly Wiggly. Retail customers came to rely on Saunders’s considerable business acumen, along with the many products he offered. When paying a visit to stores, Saunders would often walk the floor with managers, pointing out where they should hang a sign or move a product to maximize sales.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Saunders shrewdly surveyed the grocery industry, and what he saw was waste—wasted money, wasted space, and wasted time. Grocers had forged valuable relationships with their customers, but the quality of their goods was inconsistent at best. They also frequently neglected to list prices, which meant employees could (and often did) charge two customers two completely different amounts. Look at a clerk the wrong way, and he might upcharge you a few cents. And even though grocers offered helpful services like home delivery and store credit, they would typically charge a third above the manufacturer’s cost for each item—a grossly inflated markup, Saunders thought.

The biggest waste Saunders saw in the grocery industry was labor costs. Funneling every order through the store clerks meant long wait times during busy hours. When the store wasn’t busy, clerks were essentially paid to socialize with one another. Get rid of the counter clerks, Saunders thought, and you get more customers picking out more products at any given time, and without paying idle employees during slow hours.

In newspaper ads for Piggly Wiggly, Saunders laid out the reasoning behind his self-service model (with a dash of humor):

"Piggly Wiggly knows its own business best and its business will be this: To have no store clerks gab and smirk while folks are standing around ten deep to get waited on. Every customer will be her own clerk, so if she wants to talk to a can of tomatoes and kill her time, all right and well—and it seems likely this might be a mighty lonesome chat."

The businessman also smartly linked his concept with blue-collar values and good old American self-sufficiency. Shoppers didn’t need to be waited on; if they wanted something, they should be able to reach out and take it. A pre-opening advertisement proclaimed, "Piggly Wiggly will be born in a few days … not with a silver spoon in his mouth but with a work shirt on his back."

THE BUSINESS OF CHANGE

Shoplifting was a concern—one his competitors frequently raised in ridiculing the self-service model. They found it preposterous, too, that Piggly Wiggly didn’t accept store credit, and didn’t offer home delivery.

Saunders, though, believed people would follow the rules. Moreover, he believed shoppers would quickly adjust to Piggly Wiggly’s way of doing business because it offered lower prices and more, cleaner, higher-quality goods than competitors. "Your food at Piggly Wiggly will not be dropped on the floor, knocked over by the clerks; not scattered all over the delivery wagon nor stepped on," another advertisement read.

A Piggly Wiggly circa 1918. Steve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Some customers found the self-service model confusing, while others refused to go along with it. In another advertisement (Saunders was a voracious ad buyer), Saunders told the story of a shopper who refused to handle a stick of butter, and instead went across the street to a competing grocer, where she paid more to have the same product taken off the shelf and bagged for her.

Most people, however, were more than happy to do the work of shopping. They loved the wide selection of products—four times that of a typical grocery—and thought nothing of paying three cents to rent a basket to carry with them through the store (Saunders would eventually do away with this fee). They appreciated the price tags on display, and returned frequently to see if they had changed. They were quite pleased, too, with the low prices, which reflected just a 14 percent margin above the manufacturers’ costs.

NATIONWIDE BUY-IN

Everything about the Piggly Wiggly on Jefferson Avenue was ahead of its time, from the huge selection to the shopping baskets to the tiny hooks fixed over each product that allowed employees to quickly swap out price tags. Even the lighting—long, flat fixtures attached to the ceiling that illuminated every aisle—was revolutionary.

Within just a few months, Piggly Wiggly had sold $80,000 more than the average grocer did in the same time period, while also slashing business costs by more than two thirds.

Saunders had sky-high ambitions for his self-service grocery. Just weeks after opening the first Piggly Wiggly, he opened a second across town, calling it "Piggly Wiggly Junior." The next month he built a third location, which he gave the regal-sounding name "Piggly Wiggly the Third." In December of 1916, he opened "Piggly Wiggly the Fourth." Over the next two decades, The Pig, as it came to be known, spread across the South and the Midwest, eventually reaching more than 2500 stores by the 1930s. Competitors eventually caught up with the self-service format, and after various mergers and acquisitions Piggly Wiggly's reach was whittled down to the 600 or so that exist today.

An ad promoting the cash registers Piggly Wiggly used so successfully, from 1962.
roadsidepictures via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Saunders, unfortunately, wasn’t along for the ride. He exited the company in 1923 following a stock market fight in which he drove up the price of Piggly Wiggly’s stock and was deemed to have cornered the market. He opened a chain of stores under the name "Clarence Saunders, Sole Owner of My Name Stores," but struggled during the Great Depression and had to close. In 1937, he tried to reinvent the supermarket again with the Keedoozle, an automated format that quickly fizzled out. Convinced machines were the future of food retailing, he developed the Foodelectric, an even more complex system that would help customers decide what products they wanted to buy. It remained unfinished by the time he died, in 1953.

Despite his struggles late in life, Saunders had already paved the way for the modern supermarket. Innovations like the shopping basket, refrigerator case, and cash register became industry standards. On a larger scale, the self-service model helped groceries evolve from corner stores into high-volume, low-margin supermarkets. Products expanded as manufacturers vied for customers’ attention, and aisles quickly filled up with colorful packages, signs and other promotions. Brand recognition became big business as companies got rich selling everything from shaving cream to pancake batter.

Next time you're shopping, imagine, if you can, reaching out and grabbing that can of soup or that box of cereal for the first time. It might elevate the experience, if only just a little bit. It might even take you back a century to a small but mighty grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee.

Banner image credit: Whatknot, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Additional resource: Clarence Saunders and the Founding of Piggly Wiggly: The Rise & Fall of a Memphis.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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iStock

Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
Here's the Butterball Hotline's Most Frequently Asked Turkey Question
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If you’re preparing to conquer a whole turkey for the first time this Thanksgiving, you may have some questions. Like, is bigger really better? How long should the turkey rest? And is dunking the bird in a deep-fryer a bad idea? But if data from the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is any indication, the first and most important question you have concerns defrosting. As Fox News reports, how to properly thaw a turkey is the hotline's most frequently asked question—and has been for some time.

Dial the Butterball experts in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and they’ll likely tell you that there are two ways to handle a frozen turkey. The first is to unwrap it, place it on a tray, breast-side up, and leave it to sit in the refrigerator for a few days. The rule of thumb is to allow one day for every four pounds of turkey you’re thawing. So if you have an eight-pound bird, begin the defrosting process two days before Thanksgiving; if it’s 16 pounds, you need to let it thaw for four days.

Don’t panic if you’re reading this Wednesday night. There’s a quicker method for home cooks who prefer to wait until the last minute to start thinking about Thanksgiving dinner. Empty and clean the sink in your kitchen and fill it with cold water. With the plastic wrapping still on, submerge the turkey in the bath, breast-side down, and leave it alone. After 30 minutes, change out the water and flip the turkey so that it’s breast-side up. Repeat the process until the meat has fully thawed, which should take half an hour per pound. (So if you’re willing to stay up the night before, you can have a frozen turkey oven-ready by Thanksgiving morning.)

Have more burning questions about your dinner’s starring dish? You can call or text Butterball for guidance between now and December 24 (for those Christmas Eve questions). For additional turkey-cooking expertise, check out our list of tips from real chefs.

[h/t Fox News]

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