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Piggly Wiggly

LITTLE PIGGY TO MARKET — Bigger is better in the retail industry, according to some people. Nowadays, one WalMart Supercenter can strongly impact the economy of a small town, forcing many of its downtown businesses into the red. These behemoths are combinations of supermarkets, department stores, and various services. Not that long ago, though, just supermarkets themselves were considered pretty modern. And the first stores of this kind were munchkins when compared to today’s.

Piggly Wiggly proved a pioneer, representing the first self-service supermarket. Clarence Saunders founded the chain in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916. His brainchild revolutionized the grocery industry. Heretofore, a customer had requested items from a clerk or grocer. (You might think of “Sam Drucker” from “Green Acres,” “Ike Godsey” from “The Waltons,” or “Nels Oleson” from “Little House on the Prairie.”) Using the buyer’s shopping list, the clerk or grocer would dip into his barrels, bins, baskets, and boxes for such products as coffee, sugar, soda crackers, pickled fish, dried prunes, and canned vegetables. He then placed many of the items in small, brown paper bags, weighed them on a scale, and securely tied each bag with white string that trailed from an iron stringholder.

Variety was not the name of the grocery game, for stores often carried just one brand of each good. In addition, many grocers supplied only food that didn’t require refrigeration. Therefore, shoppers had to also rely on bakeries, produce stands, butcher shops, and milk delivery services.

Piggly Wiggly changed all of this. Wielding shopping baskets, customers served themselves from open shelves. These markets also became “supermarkets” by adding meat, dairy, produce, and breads to their offerings.

The name “Piggly Wiggly” stands out — And that is why Mr. Saunders chose it. He wanted people to talk about and remember the moniker. As to its actual inspiration, Mr. Saunders proved reticent. According to one old story, he spotted from a train window several little swine struggling to squeeze under a fence.

JACKSONVILLE’S FIRST PIGGLY WIGGLY — According to the 1985 survey of Springfield and the Jacksonville directories the first Piggly Wiggly in Jacksonville is located at 1919 (now 1719) North Main Street in the year 1919. As of 2018, the building still stands and is currently being restored with its store front almost 100% original. It is said to still have its “original fire alarm on the facade and until a couple of years ago had its original down water spout from its flat roof. The front doors also appear to be original.”

RIVER CITY PIGLETS — In February 1931, the city’s largest Piggly Wiggly opened its doors downtown. It stood at 17 East Bay Street, across from the Dyal-Upchurch Building, near the north end of today’s Main Street Bridge. (The old site is currently a parking garage just south of the Main Public Library.)

Opening day features for the Piggly Wiggly included music, food demonstrations, and souvenir samples. According to the Jacksonville Journal, the supermarket was roomy and bright, with shelves packed with an assortment of edibles and arranged for the customer’s convenience. Almost an entire side of the store was occupied by a meat department, which sported large, “mechanically refrigerated” display cases made of “sanitary white” porcelain. The local An-Jo Bakery ran the establishment’s baked goods section.

During the mid 1900s, the head of the entire Piggly Wiggly chain lived in the River City. Grocery magnate William R. Lovett served as its president and chairman of the board prior to his death in 1978. The pioneer corporation consisted of hundreds of stores.

Whatever has happened to Piggly Wiggly? Many of its outlets have been absorbed by other grocery chains, so it is mostly confined now to smaller towns in the Southeast and Midwest. But the Piggly Wiggly marketing idea caught on quickly. By 1955, supermarkets in general were responsible for 60% of American grocery sales. Little mom-&-pop food stores, long familiar to shoppers, were fading from the scene.

Updated: 10/24/2018

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