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Christmas Turkey Display Outside Walthamstow Store, c.1930

The Big Christmas Shop Through The Decades

In the 21st century, it seems the sun barely has time to set on the Great British Summer before attentions are turned to Christmas. But the bustling aisles of shops and anticipation of a well-stocked cupboard that envelopes the festive season is nothing new - the origins of this can be traced back as far as the Victorian era.

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Sainsbury's Christmas Fruits advert c. 1930

‘Twas The Shop Before Christmas...

The definition of ‘the big Christmas shop’ will have changed dramatically since Sainsbury’s inception in 1869 - and certainly the connotations associated with the word ‘big’. It was undoubtedly a simpler time, but the excitement and uncertainty of bagging yourself some prize poultry just days before Christmas was not to be underestimated.

In the late 1800s, Sainsbury’s Christmas selection comprised of dried fruits: choicest Vostizza currants, finest Empire raisins and figs from Smyrna. These, combined with suet and mincemeat, would have formed the basis of an elaborate Christmas window display trying to tempt local footfall inside to make a purchase, under the slogan (devised by the John James Sainsbury himself) “Quality perfect, prices lower”.

Like the modern day, the turkey was the centrepiece of every Christmas dinner, although some preferred the cheaper, more attainable option of a chicken, duck or goose.

Very few households had refrigerators, therefore perishable goods had to be purchased as close to Christmas as possible. This meant that, although the turkey was a prominent item on most people's shopping lists, it could only be purchased a few days before Christmas. As a result, a surge in trading was common in the days leading up to Christmas, with some stores reporting sales of over two thousand turkeys. 

Describing an early Sainsbury’s Christmas shop as ‘big’ may be misleading to some, especially when compared to what it is today. But rest assured, finding that prize Christmas turkey and the ingredients to make the finest Christmas pudding was a ‘big’ deal.

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Longbridge, Birmingham, 2013

What's In a Christmas Shop Today?

Countless varieties of food and drink became more readily available and more convenient to purchase. This, combined with drastic increases in access to home refrigeration, rapidly expanding Sainsbury’s product lines and more accessible transport, saw the rise of the well-stocked Christmas pantry as we think of it today.

Most people will be familiar with the modern day ‘big Christmas shop’. It will likely conjure images of a trolley packed to the brim with indulgent goodies and seasonal treats to fuel the ensuing festivities. Anything from walnuts to wine, turkeys to tinsel and everything in between.

The 1950s and 1960s ushered in the use of personal refrigerators, allowing the modern consumer to purchase perishable items weeks before Christmas without fear that they’d spoil.

As time moved on, Sainsbury’s was able to begin offering a greater variety of products to customers. The 50s saw the introduction of the self service checkout at the store on 9/11 London Road, Croydon, revolutionising the shopping experience. Self service allowed consumers to peruse the aisles of a shop, putting items into a shopping basket themselves rather than relying on a shopkeeper to collect everything from behind a counter. By 1955, the Lewisham branch was the biggest self service store in Europe.

This allowed Sainsbury’s to stock a larger and more diverse range of products, especially during Christmas when demand was at its highest. This was helped by Sainsbury’s decision in 1961 to start using computers for ordering and stock checking, becoming the first food retailer to do so.

The 1970s saw Sainsbury’s introduce in-store bakeries and fresh fish counters, giving consumers even more choice and convenience. This, combined with a general increase in consumers’ disposable incomes, triggered the more diverse shopping habits we see in the 21st century and the contents of the Christmas shop continued to evolve as a result. It’s now far more common to see a Christmas shopping basket adorned with some Chestnut Smoked Salmon with Maple & Thyme than a jar of suet!