On June 26 1950, Sainsbury’s opened a refurbished store on London Road, Croydon. The London Co-operative Society had already opened a number of self-service stores, but the Croydon Sainsbury’s was big – more than 3,300sq ft in area: the precursor of the modern supermarket. Not all the customers were happy. When Alan Sainsbury himself handed one woman a new-fangled wire basket to collect her groceries, she flung it back at him in disgust.

In those days of strict government controls, the Ministry of Food had given Sainsbury’s special dispensation to convert the store to self-service. The government saw the importation of this American retail method as a way of coping with labour shortages and cutting costs. The US Technical Assistance and Productivity Program, established under the Marshall Plan, promoted “the gospel of self-service”. The abolition of rationing in 1954, and the ending of postwar building restrictions in the same year, led to the proliferation of supermarkets.

At first, many housewives were sceptical about this new form of shopping, worried about the loss of personal service, the temptation to overspend and even being accused of stealing goods bought in other shops. Drawing on memories of rationing, self-service advocates reassured them with the promise of queueless shopping: they would only have to queue to pay, with no time-consuming weighing and wrapping of food. Those people requiring few items could pay for them quickly, while others could shop at their leisure.

One upbeat article in The Times in 1959 claimed that self-service “saves thousands of hours of queueing time every day”, and that even a queue was now only “a queue in one store, as opposed to queues in four or five shops”.

Such optimism was premature. By 1964, the Consumer Council was reporting that the most common complaint of supermarket shoppers was the wait at the checkouts.

definingmoment@ft.com

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