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C-Company regiment photo c.1914

Sainsbury's Through World War I

As 2014 marks the centenary of the First World War, it is more important than ever to remember the extraordinary lengths people went to and sacrifices they made in service to their country. Wartime memories and stories are etched into Britain’s history and Sainsbury’s, having been founded 45 years prior to the war commencing, has plenty of its own to tell.

Here, we take a look at this important period of history through the unique perspective of one of Britain’s longest-standing stores; and reveal the extent of Sainsbury’s involvement with communities during the Great War.

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Female delivery driver and her assistant with one of the first motorised delivery vans

The Great War Begins

Sainsbury's always has been, and always will be, unwaveringly committed to its colleagues, customers and communities. John Benjamin Sainsbury’s, son of founder John James Sainsbury, inspired these values throughout his leadership - placing great importance on upholding a consistently resourceful, proactive and supportive response to the war.

When war began in 1914, John Benjamin did everything in his power to reassure communities, keeping stores stocked with quality goods at low prices. Sainsbury’s earliest slogan “Quality perfect, prices lower” would remain the standard.  

Sainsbury’s was resourceful in its attempt to combat the inevitable food shortages and rising costs of goods. Posters and adverts promoted alternatives to increasingly scarce family favourites, alternatives such as cooked meats and Crelos Margarine. The plan was to cause as little disruption as possible to regular shopping habits.

Although Sainsbury’s was forced to increase prices for imported sugar, butter and bacon, it had more control over  the price of home-produced foods from Sainsbury’s own suppliers like Mr Frank and Lloyd Maunder. The Maunder’s supplied Sainsbury’s with staple items such as eggs, butter, poultry, pork and rabbits. In early September 2014, a month into war and ever rising prices, Sainsburys lowered the costs of its meats as a sign of commitment to keeping prices low and providing support to the community.

In fact, Sainsbury’s was so committed to keeping prices low that it was threatened with prosecution from the Board of Trade on a number of occasions for refusing to comply with price-hikes.

  • "£585,000, 000 save", war-time Crelos Margarine advert

  • "Food in War Time; Sainsbury's Crelos Margarine" advert

  • "Provision - Supply: Don't Worry About It! Pass It On" advert

  • "Free Trade - Sainsbury's" advert

Sainsbury’s was not only forthcoming with its dedication to supporting communities, it also went to great lengths to ensure colleagues felt secure and valued.

An example of this was evident in John Benjamin response to the war-time staffing issue. The stores were put under great pressure as many of the staff left their positions to sign-on and join the Great War. Far from begrudging departing colleagues, John Benjamin issued a statement assuring that all positions would be held for them to reclaim upon their return.

In another show of prescience, Sainsbury’s advertised for 200 female staff to join the company to replace the departing male colleagues who were required to join the war effort. This elicited thousands of applications and by the end of the war there were 39 female branch managers. These were often sisters and wives of peacetime managers. 

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Six of the first female colleagues advertising Sainsbury's margarine at 9/11 London Road, Croydon

Six of the first female colleagues advertising Sainsbury's margarine at 9/11 London Road, Croydon

John James Sainsbury donated substantial amounts of his own funds towards war relief, while enabling and encouraging communities to do so too. He instructed stores to install collection boxes and made a public promise to add sixpence of his own money to every shilling raised.

This was the first example of Sainsbury’s commitment to fundraising for Britain’s armed forces. Today Sainsbury’s follow the example set by John James by fostering a strong partnership with The Royal British Legion, helping to raise funds to support its work with the armed services and their families.