The British shopping revolution
As British tastes have changed, so have we. We look at how our stores have expanded from selling ‘the best butter in the world’ to offering more than 30,000 products. When John James Sainsbury and his wife, Mary Ann, opened their first shop on Drury Lane in 1869, Sainsbury’s was a small dairy, selling just butter, eggs, milk – and later cheese. Six years later, imported Irish bacon was added to the goods on sale, and Danish bacon soon followed.
When the company opened its Croydon branch in 1882, the range expanded: speciality products were targeted to appeal to middle class shoppers. Basic groceries, such as tea, coffee
and sugar were introduced in 1903, and by 1920, shops included full grocery departments carrying dairy, fresh meats, cooked meats, poultry, game and packaged groceries.
Butter was the first speciality product, and the company gained a reputation for innovation – becoming the first British retailer to sell Dutch butter, and requiring suppliers to mark each cask with a production date.
By 1900, each shop sold at least four different kinds of butter and three types of margarine, which would be delivered from the depot to shops in 50 kg wooden casks. The ‘first butterman’ (the most senior colleague on the butter counter), would taste a sample from each cask to check for quality and freshness.
Another early speciality was cheese. The biggest trade by far was in Cheddar, but Sainsbury’s also sold a wide range of more exotic cheeses. The shop in Croydon offered “‘Delicate Cheshires snug in their special linen shirts, rich red cheese from the Low Countries, luscious Gorgonzola from the mountain pastures” of Italy. There was Stilton decorated with ribbon rosettes, Swiss Gruyère, and specialities such as French Gervais, Roquefort and Port Salut.
Eggs were displayed in baskets with hay or straw on outdoor stalls. They could be bought individually, as well as by the dozen or half dozen.
In Victorian times, trains full of fresh milk from Somerset, Devon and Dorset would arrive in London in the early morning and be distributed to the shops. Other retailers gained reputations for watering down milk, while Sainsbury’s prided itself on providing pure produce. Customers would bring their own jugs or glasses to be filled straight from the churn, and at some shops, there was a slot machine known as a ‘mechanical cow’, where customers could get a milk top-up outside of opening hours by putting in a copper and drawing on a lever.
In 1903, John James Sainsbury acquired a number of shops from another chain retailer, Tom Deacock. One of these, based at 12 Kingsland High Street, sold teas, sugar, coffee, cocoa, canned fish and fruit. John James decided to add these lines to the ever growing product range carried in his shops.
For the range of ‘pure teas’, John James enlisted help from George Payne & Co, a tea merchant based near Tower Bridge. Red Label, Blue Label and Green Label were launched at the opening of the Ealing branch in 1903. The premium Red Label tea blend is still going strong today, bearing the proud claim of being the oldest Sainsbury’s brand product still in production.
In the years before frozen food and ready meals, canned foods were of great importance. In 1959 just 24 per cent of British households owned a fridge, so tins were the only way for most people to enjoy the convenience of long-term food storage. During the 1950s, we greatly increased our range of canned fruits and vegetables, along with tinned meats and corned beef. By the early 1960s, curries were available in a can, just in need of warming to provide an entire meal.
The delicatessen counter you see in stores today is part of a long tradition of producing and selling cooked produce, from pork pie and roast beef, to rarer treats including boar’s head and ox tongue. Bacon had a separate counter, where it could be cut as thickly as customer’s wished – usually number 7, for frying - using a Berkel slicing machine.
Other than pork and poultry, the early shops, with the exception of a single butcher at 16, Kingsland High Street, did not sell fresh meat. That changed in 1910, with the addition of frozen New Zealand lamb to the range, followed by fresh lamb, mutton and beef after the First World War. Trade grew rapidly, and by the 1930’s the company was already selling more meat than many major butchers.
The rise in convenience foods mirrored the rapid growth of women working outside of the home. The supermarket’s first line of ready meals launched in 1983, but were not an immediate success. The range was made up of three dishes any self-respecting 1980s dinner party hostess would like to serve – Boeuf Bourguignon, Chicken Chasseur and Coq au Vin. As it turned out, customers did not want ready meals for home entertaining, they wanted them for a convenient midweek supper. So the ready meal range was relaunched in 1986 with a range of pasta and vegetable dishes.
Sainsbury’s has led the way in offering ‘healthy eating’ convenience foods, offering fruit canned in juice rather than syrup, and children’s food with no artificial additives, as well as extending the organic range to include convenience classics, like garlic bread and oven chips.
The food stores sell reflects the communities they serve, which is why Sainsbury’s has such a rich tradition of serving international foods. Back in 1920, shops first started selling Indian ingredients, including chutney and curry powder.
International foods are tailored to local tastes – so when the Swiss Cottage store opened in 1959, it catered for the large Jewish community with salami from Italy and Hungary and hams and sausage from Poland, providing a range rarely seen outside of a specialist delicatessen.
Chinese food first appeared in the Bristol store in 1961, but soon spread across the nation as adventurous customers wanted to try something new. Italian wine was first added in Kempston to serve a community of former Italian prisoners of war, and Japanese food was added in the Telford branch in the 1980s to cater for workers at the Honda plant. Since 2003, Sainsbury’s longstanding supplier Lloyd Maunder has been supplying the company with certified Halal meat.
Seasonal Food and Regional Specialities
In the days before refrigeration and air freight, much of the produce sold in shops was seasonal. Customers bought pork when there was an ‘r’ in the month, as it was thought to be at its best. Eggs were prized between April and June, and the best quality ‘new grass’ butter was only available during Spring and Summer, when milk was abundant.
Sainsbury’s first ‘own brand’ products were bacon and ham, cured in the Allcroft Road depot until 1890. Later, when production was moved to Blackfriars, the company established its own kitchens, producing sausages, pies, and potted meats. The smell of baking would always attract local boys to the depot, hopeful of the chance to be rewarded with a pie in return for running an errand.
By the 1930s, the kitchens were in need of modernisation. Wembley stadium designer, Sir Owen Williams, was commissioned to design a new factory near Stamford Street. James Sainsbury enforced strict new hygiene regulations, and equipped the factory with quality control laboratories, so food could be regularly tasted and tested.
From washing powder to fashion: Sainsbury’s beyond food
It wasn’t until 1961 that Sainsbury’s started selling non-food products. Launched at the Chichester branch, the range included washing powder, toilet paper, soaps, shampoos and cleaning products.
By 1963 household items such as buckets, brushes and cooking utensils were added, and by 1966 the supermarket was moving into making its own lines of essentials such as washing powder.
In the 1970s Sainsbury’s launched its own range of clothes, with basics such as underwear proving to be the most popular lines.
In 1886, John James Sainsbury began to buy direct from producers, and it’s a tradition that’s been maintained to this day.
The company is committed to helping the farming industry, and in the 1990s Sainsbury’s established ‘Partnership in Produce’ and ‘Partnership in Livestock’, bringing the business together with suppliers and farmers to provide training and equipment, and to support research.
In 2006 the ‘Fair Promise’ scheme launched to support farmers if they choose to become organic producers, and in the same year, the company formed Sainsbury’s Dairy Development Group to work more closely with people within the British Dairy Industry.