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Freezers in store

The technology of shopping

Picking up a basket, filling it with fresh, frozen and refrigerated goods and then scanning it may seem mundane now. But to someone living 70 years ago, it would have seemed baffling. Shopping has changed immeasurably since the Victorian era.

When Sainsbury’s first opened its dairies in the 19th Century, people had to shop two or three times a week or their food would go rotten. Meals had to be carefully planned, and people would visit several specialist shops, as supermarkets weren’t yet part of British life. All shops offered counter service, and customers had to ask for how much of each product they wanted: it would then be weighed and cut accordingly. With little opportunity to browse, customers rarely bought more than needed.

From counter service to self-service

One of the biggest transformations in shopping was the introduction of self-service stores. In 1949, Alan and Fred Sainsbury visited the United States as part of a Ministry of Food drive to improve shopping. At the time, there weren’t any supermarkets in Britain.

Alan Sainsbury said: ‘We both came back so thrilled and stimulated at the potentiality of self-service trading that we became convinced the future lay with what we thought were large stores of 10,000 square feet of selling space’.

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Croydon store 1950 leaflet

Croydon store 1950 leaflet

Sainsbury’s opened its first self-service branch in Croydon in 1950. Assistants were employed to help older customers adapt to the new style of shopping. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited the Harlow store in 1959, describing it as “A very clean and most ingenious way of serving the public and doing business”.

Home News magazine wrote in 1959: ‘It’s the easiest way in the world of spending too much money. It’s such fun to pop things in the basket yourself that you forget you have to pay on the way out’.


In February 1971, Britain and Ireland changed over to a decimal currency. The old and new systems were not easily comparable and many people found it confusing at first.

A year before decimalisation came in, Sainsbury’s Croydon store became a ‘decimal shop’. Colleagues were trained with plastic coins, and then returned to their branches to pass on their knowledge.

The supermarket invited groups, including the Women’s Institute, to watch its Quick Change video and try the new currency. More than 30,000 customers visited the shop in the months before D-Day. The day before the changeover, Sainsbury’s gave pensioners a new pound to spend in store, with pupils from Croydon High School helping them shop. Leaflets and conversion charts, and dual pricing, all helped customers when the change came in.

The frozen food revolution

In 1974, only 11 per cent of homes had a freezer. By 1982, this had risen to 49 per cent. This meant demand for frozen food rose quickly: between 1972 and 1973 frozen food sales increased by over 30 per cent.

Inspired by the success of new freezer-food outlets such Bejam, Alpine, Everest, Cordon Bleu and Dalgetty, the company opened a chain of freezer centres. Each one sold over 3,000 different products, the majority of which were large pack sizes which offered considerable price savings. Promotional material for the stores often featured the slogan: ‘Quality in Quantity at Sainsbury’s new Freezer Centres’.

The frozen food range included ‘Home Freezer Packs’ of vegetables including peas, beans and crinkle cut chips. There were bulk packs of meat, fish portions and a huge range of frozen desserts, like Danish pastries, jam doughnuts, ‘banana dream pie’ and the firm favourite, Arctic roll. There were even bulk packs of uncooked ‘Dinnodog’ meat for family pets.

The bar code revolution

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Scanning leaflet 1981

Scanning leaflet 1981

Sainsbury’s was the first supermarket to computerise the distribution of goods to stores. In 1979, an article in the JS Journal predicted the future incredibly accurately, saying: 'The arrival of the silicon chip has ushered in an era of cheap computing. Just as the cost of a pocket calculator has plunged over the last few years, so computers will get steadily cheaper, and this means that before long we will have to get used to computers cropping up in every walk of life.'

The company installed its first computer - an EMIDEC 1100 - at head office in 1961. But it was the introduction checkout scanning in 1979 which signalled a technological revolution for retailing. Customers loved barcode scanners because they brought speed, accuracy and an itemised till roll - known as a ‘bill that speaks for itself’. The supermarket suddenly had instant access to sales information. The new system was described by the head of a US supermarket as 'the greatest market research tool ever invented.'


During the 1980s, Britain became aware of threats to the environment. New branches were built with energy saving in mind, and energy consumption levels in existing branches were reduced.

Sainsbury’s also pioneered ‘ozone friendly’ fridges which were totally CFC free. The first were installed by 1994. Chief refrigeration engineer Peter Cooper received a CBE from the Queen in 1993 and a Citation of Excellence from the United Nations Environment Programme for this breakthrough work.

Home delivery

Home delivery was first introduced in Croydon in the 19th century, using carts pulled by horses and by hand. Bicycles and tricycles came into use at the turn of the century and in 1915 Sainsbury’s bought its first Model T Ford van. Four deliveries were made a day, at 8.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm and 4.30pm, and customers had to place their orders at least half an hour before these times.

Orders still had to be placed at the shop, but free delivery saved people carrying their shopping home. Demand for home delivery fell with the introduction of self-service shopping and the growth in car ownership and home refrigerators. In 1955, the supermarket ended the service.

Little did anyone know that 40 years later, there’d be new demand for delivery-to-the-door. In 1995, Sainsbury’s introduced ‘Wine Direct for internet wine sales, and in 1998 it extended the service to include food with the launch of ‘Orderline’. Online shopping has gone from strength to strength and many customers today rely on it.

Trading Hours

In 1869, there were no legal restrictions on shopping hours. People worked very long weeks in stores, commonly between 80 and 100 hours. A typical working day began at 7.30am and ended at 9.15pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and at 10.45pm on Fridays.

Saturday was the busiest day of the week – many people were paid on a Saturday evening, so shops stayed open into the early hours of Sunday. People would enter shops still drinking from the tankards that they carried from the pubs.

Although the shutters were pulled down before midnight, trading continued as long as there were customers to serve. As the last customer left, the shop would be scrubbed down from top to bottom ready for Monday morning.

The Shops Act of 1950 greatly reduced trading – and working – hours. Sunday trading was banned and one late opening a week was allowed, until 9pm. Then, in 1994, the Sunday Trading Act saw a return to seven-day opening. From 1997, some larger stores experimented with 24-hour opening.

Evolving Shopping Patterns

In the last 30 years, people’s lifestyles have changed and their shopping patterns reflect that. More women than ever work full time; people work longer hours and family structures have become less traditional. The company has reflected this by extending shopping hours, and, since 1998, introducing ‘Sainsbury’s Locals’ convenience stores.

Timeline of technology

1961: Sainsbury’s becomes the first food retailer to computerise distribution of goods.

1969: Sainsbury’s installs a new ICL 1906E computer which occupied over 4,000 square feet – an area equivalent to the size of a supermarket.

1971: New Plessey stock ordering technology enables goods to be delivered to stores within 24 hours.

1979: Experiments with computer checkouts begin in Crawley, with an IBM computer-controlled key entry point of sale system. This was upgraded to scanning in February 1980.

1983: Sainsbury’s becomes the first retailer in Britain to link weighing scales for produce to scanning terminals.

1985: The Burham store was the first to open equipped with a bespoke scanning system developed by ICL. By 1988, more than half of branches had scanning equipment. All stores had been converted to scanning by 1990.

1987: Debit cards were trialled in Heyford Hill and High Wycombe, before being introduced nationwide in 1988. By 1991, a quarter of all transactions involved debit cards - making them more popular than cheques.

1991: Credit cards accepted

1995 - Sainsbury’s becomes the first British supermarket to offer goods for sale on the internet through its Wine Direct service.

1997: Sainsbury’s store in Kempshott, Basingstoke was the first British supermarket to offer customers self-scanning using radio frequency equipment – system developed by Symbol Technologies.

1999: Roll out of interactive touch screen terminals

2000: Home shopping service rebranded bringing 'Sainsbury's to You'