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John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury and Family c.1890

Sainsbury’s Humble Beginnings: 1869-1900

When, in 1869, a young couple of 19 and 24 set up a small dairy shop in a rented property on Drury Lane in the centre of London, no one could have predicted it would become one of Britain’s most loved stores.

But this young couple were Mary Ann Staples, daughter of a dairy shop owner, and John James Sainsbury, son of a craftsman, and they understood what their customers wanted from their first days of trading.

London remained then, as it is now, the commercial heart of the country. But the conditions for trading were a world away from those today: there was no refrigeration so fresh food would quickly rot, and there was no guarantee of quality. Overcrowding coupled with a lack of hygiene meant that people would get sick from food more regularly than today.

The Sainsbury family set out to change this: they sold fresh milk from cows living in the countryside, while some of their competitors watered down milk taken from cows that lived in the polluted confines of the city.

Mary Ann would scrub the store to ensure it was as hygienic as possible. One of the couple’s first colleagues, Sarah Pullen, said: “Mrs Sainsbury... was always up very early in the morning and took great pride in the cleanliness of the shop”.

The couple would store food in the cool depths of their basement to give it a longer shelf life. John James wanted to ensure the freshness of products, and brought in an innovative move of insisting that the butter from his Dutch suppliers was stamped with the date it was made. His idea was so good that the Dutch government later made compulsory. And from their first days of trading, Mary Ann and John James set out to make sure that their food was affordable.

They Sainsbury family quickly gained the loyalty of their customers, and their reputation for quality at low prices quickly spread. They built on their initial success, opening stores in Kentish Town, Islington and Croydon. Sainsbury’s started expanding their range of products, selling sausages and ham. In 1882, the shop started offering own brand goods, including bacon which was smoked in Allcroft Road in north west London.

It was around this time that Sainsbury’s adopted its first slogan, "Quality perfect, prices lower”. This attitude has remained our core value, and is reflected in slogans throughout the years, from “Good Food Costs Less at Sainsbury’s” to “Live well for less”.

1869-1900: Quality Perfect, Price Lower