It's a super anniversary: it's 50 years since the first full size self-service supermarket was unveiled in the UK. Helen Gregory looks back on the opening of the Premier store in Streatham and talks to pioneer Patrick Galvani. (the supermarket).
The Grocer reported: "Fifteen hundred South London housewives performed their own opening ceremony of the new self-service shop. At no time did they incur any discomfort or cause congestion, and the management expected to clear 3,000 customers with equal ease through the three check-out lanes."
The Premier store sold fresh meat, frozen food, and most importantly, fresh fruit and vegetables in a self-service format, much of it prepacked. It also offered a number of non food items, unusual for stores at that time -- cosmetics, flowers, cigarettes and greeting cards. Sanitary towels were also sold for the first time in a grocery store.
Another important difference was its size. At 2,500 sq ft, the store qualified for the American definition of a supermarket and was the largest so far in Britain.
Cream, white and shell pink were the dominant colours. There was space for women to park prams at the entrance.
The store had muzak, and wallpaper above the shelving depicting mountain scenery, and shoppers used wire baskets as the store was too small for trolleys
Patrick Galvani was chairman and md of Premier. In his prime, the self-service pioneer was described as the "most galvanic influence on British self-service" and 50 years later, after a career in retail and catering, he has clear and fond memories of the firm's halcyon days. "I was really excited when I realised Streatham would be 2,500 sq ft as I knew that made it a supermarket," he recalls.
Galvani first saw self-service in the US while in the Navy, and ended up in the industry after he married his first wife, whose father was the chairman of the Express Dairy Company.
On Galvani's insistence, the firm started by converting 30 shops to self-service, and after opening Streatham spread its reach across the south, from Luton to Newbury and Crawley. Initially shoppers were reticent to help themselves, but soon capitulated. "Consumers said they didn't want us to change the shop, but as soon as it converted, they loved it."
And rival chains were also slow to follow his lead. "The other multiple grocers were quite snobby about us and thought the idea wouldn't catch on."
Big profits meant it wasn't long before others realised the advantages of bigger self-service formats. In the 1950s, the average food store took 98 [pounds sterling] a week, but Express Dairies' first store took 1,000 [pounds sterling]. By the end of the late 1950s, it had gone up to 6,000 [pounds sterling]; the company was taking 10m [pounds sterling] a year in the early 60s.
Galvani's ambitions soon grew. He set out to buy Irwins, a big chain in the north of England, but was blocked by his board. Tesco's Jack Cohen made a bid instead and the rest is history. Galvani muses: "I think things might have been a bit different for both of us it had been the other way round."
The Premier md left the company after a disagreement about taking Green Shield Stamps and reflects: "I think we would have ended up a huge company if I hadn't resigned."
He's kept a watchful eye over the sector's evolution during the last half a century and reckons supermarkets have come on in leaps and bounds since the 1950s. Galvani admires the way supermarkets have evolved, but is critical of the falling standards of service. "It's disgraceful to have queues when checkouts aren't open, and not good enough when staff don't know when deliveries will be made or why something's out of stock.
"Customer relationships are so important, and M&S is an example of what happens when this breaks down, while Somerfield staff are just plain unhelpful or just stand about chatting."
He also criticises his local Tesco for consistently being out of stock on some products. "That shouldn't happen nowadays. Computers run the store -- you ask staff and they don't know about products. Staff generally don't have enough product knowledge -- they can tell you where something is, but they don't know anything about it."
But Galvani's adamant that supermarkets will always be around, despite the growing popularity of grocery home shopping. "People still love to pick up things and touch them."