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Colleagues Outside Croydon Store, c.1900

Sainsbury’s Face Fresh Challenges: 1900-1914

In the late 19th century and early 1900s, London’s population grew and competition to sell quality retail goods became more intense.

Sainsbury’s had to find new ways to challenge large national companies on price, without jeopardising the quality of its products. The company had to find new ways to promote itself to customers too, especially when stores were opened in new locations.

Sainsbury’s also started to move into more rural areas around this time and faced fresh challenges in delivering goods and making a name for itself in these communities.


Facing fierce competition in key retail locations, such as Kentish Town, Sainsbury’s had to expand quickly. This threat to business came mainly from large national companies, including Home & Colonial and Lipton’s (now known as a brand of tea). They sought to serve Greater London’s rapidly expanding population, which had more than doubled between 1861 and 1911. By 1900, the company had opened shops in areas away from central London, including Sutton, Redhill, Watford and Harrow.

The Redhill branch marked a new step for Sainsbury’s, as this was its first ‘country’ store. During the first decade of the new century, Sainsbury’s opened many more countryside branches. It moved into what were then small provincial towns, including Brighton, Hove, Ipswich, Tunbridge Wells and Oxford.

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Blackheath store, 1902

Reaching Rural Areas

As Sainsbury’s stores spread further afield, this meant that new forms of transport were needed. At the start of the century, Sainsbury’s operated a small fleet of one or two horse vans to supply all of its stores. But a few years later, it became clear that more was needed.

By 1907, after significant urban expansion including stores such as the one at Blackheath (see image above) in 1902, Sainbury’s began to open stores in more rural locations. The horse-drawn van was no longer enough for the increasing number of stores, in more distant locations. To cope with these long journeys, Sainsbury’s bought two Foden steam wagons, which were horseless and ran on coke fuel, used to boil the water. These large vehicles produced so much smoke and dirt that the drivers needed other colleagues to handle the food when they got to their destination, as they risked making products unclean.

In 1911, the firm bought seven 1 1/2 to 2 ton Milne Daimler lorries to make the most out of their deliveries. More remote branches with poor road access, however, continued to be supplied by the unreliable rail service, leading to a lot of spoiled deliveries.

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Colleagues Outside Cricklewood Store, c.1900

Communicating With Customers

With the opening of branches in new locations, Sainsbury’s had to try a range of promotional activities to make sure the brand’s name was known by local residents.

Sainsbury’s always tried to tailor its promotions to the local community - the above image is a great example of Sainsbury’s price promotions. One such way was to mark the anniversaries of store openings by issuing coupons for free gifts, which included everything from crayons and colouring books to tea sets and cutlery. They also refunded the travel fares of customers who shopped at certain times of day, in some areas.

Sainsbury’s advertising was often quite genteel. One promotion featured cards with fairy tales printed on them, wrapped in packs of tea. Each story was a retelling of a classic, but featuring Sainsbury’s own tea. One story described Jack calming his nerves with a cup of it after climbing the beanstalk!

One break from this understated form of advertising was provoked as a response to Thomas Lipton, famous for his ostentatious stunts (which included having giant cheeses pulled to his branches by elephants). After Lipton received the Royal Warrant, his stores displayed signs claiming “We serve the King.” Sainsbury’s responded to this by placing signs over any of their stores that faced Lipton’s, reading “God save the Queen!