In September 1916, entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Memphis. Despite its funny name and the flamboyance of its founder, this new style of store was serious business. Nearly a century later, Piggly Wiggly and the beloved Mr. Pig mascot remain ingrained in the southern vernacular, appearing in communities across the nation and starring in several films, novels, and songs.
Piggly Wiggly is credited with being the first self-service grocery chain. Saunders developed the business to overcome the high costs of operation and the excessive amounts of credit maintained by customers at traditional grocery stores. If customers served themselves and then presented their items to a clerk for price-totaling, packaging, and payment, Saunders believed that his stores would need fewer employees, thereby reducing operating costs. Although other chain stores kept prices low through volume sales in several locations and cash-and-carry policies, Saunders anticipated that Piggly Wiggly’s lower prices combined with the faster sales pace of self-service would result in more customers and more revenue.
Piggly Wiggly did not simply revolutionize the grocery shopping experience for consumers; it also revolutionized the way other businesses had to market their products. In the earliest versions of the store, customers entered a turnstile and were led through the store along aisles of shelves neatly displaying every product available. Saunders knew that, when customers saw more, they bought more, and his store designs and the self-service concept capitalized on the customers’ impulsivity. By allowing customers to serve themselves and clearly marking the price for every product, Piggly Wiggly enabled patrons to examine and compare items without the pressure of a clerk’s gaze. The cash-and-carry policies also eliminated store credit and delivery services for customers. Saunders kept manufacturers on their toes, too. With their products displayed next to those of competitors, suppliers had to set their goods apart through eye-catching packaging and advertisements. Piggly Wiggly carried nationally produced brands and attracted many customers by capitalizing on national advertising.
Saunders patented the self-service grocery store in 1917. He established the Piggly Wiggly Corporation and issued franchises to numerous grocery retailers, implementing several levels of standardization within his stores. The chain required clerks to wear company-provided uniforms and used efficiency experts to help clerks complete their specific tasks. Additionally, company mandates prevented clerks from assisting customers with product selection. Piggly Wiggly standardized store signage and interior plans, limited exterior paint colors, and incorporated modern interior fixtures to increase customer recognition and brand confidence. Piggly Wiggly was the first grocery to have refrigerated food cases. By 1922, the company operated twelve hundred stores in twenty-nine states.
Tennessee’s direct connection to Piggly Wiggly was short lived, due to a financial scandal in 1922-23 that stripped Saunders of control of the company.
Piggly Wiggly reached the height of popularity in the 1930s with 2,600 stores in operation nationwide. Today, there are approximately 600 Piggly Wiggly stores in about seventeen states, extending across the Southeast to as far north as Wisconsin. The company continues to follow the franchise concept as all stores are independently owned and operated. Although Piggly Wiggly no longer maintains its headquarters in Tennessee, the legacy of Clarence Saunders still lingers.
Mike Freeman, “Clarence Saunders: The Piggly Wiggly Man,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1992): 161-69