This week’s column is an accompaniment to the preview article on the upcoming Pack Memorial Library presentation by local historians Terry Taylor and Nan Chase (see “Small Bites: “Looking back on Asheville’s grocery scene,” June 20, Xpress).
On Sept. 3, 1922, The Sunday Citizen informed readers “[a]n entirely new method of selling groceries” was on its way to Asheville. That November, the Piggly Wiggly Co. (founded in Memphis, Tenn., in 1916 by Clarence Saunders) would open its latest store on Pack Square. The article described the grocery’s operation as a “wait-on-yourself” approach. It explained:
“The customer enters the store and at a turnstile picks up a market basket and passes into the aisles. The articles wanted are picked from the shelves and bins and deposited in the basket. It is necessary before leaving the store to traverse the aisles from end to end to pass by all the wares displayed.
Upon leaving the store, the customer passes in front of a checker, who wraps all the packages neatly and returns the basket to its place. The amount of the purchases are quickly added on a specially constructed adding machine, so that but little time is taken in this transaction.”
Mayor Gallatin Roberts performed the store’s ceremonial opening on Nov. 10, 1922. According to the paper, the mayor’s wife, Mary Roberts, became the shop’s first paying customer. Meanwhile, all guests that day received a free flower. With its opening, Asheville’s newest grocery store joined the 1,100 other Piggly Wiggly’s operating in 44 of the country’s then 48 states.
Early Piggly Wiggly advertisements in The Asheville Citizen provide insight into the store’s main adversary: consumer habits. At the time, many local residents were accustomed to calling in their grocery orders and having these items delivered to their homes. Piggly Wiggly undermined that practice by raising questions about hidden fees.
“Did you ever stop to consider what it costs to operate a Delivery Truck?” a Nov. 13 advertisement asked readers. “Do you know that telephone operators are paid salaries? Also that Order Clerks, Shipping Clerks and Porters get paid every week or month?”
The cascade of questions led to the ad’s main point and most pressing query:
“Who do you think pays these salaries and other expenses? If you have given it any thought, you will know that the customers do the paying. Just how much of it are you paying? And yet you are told it is ‘Free Delivery.’”
A steady campaign to break consumer habits continued throughout the shop’s early days. In a Nov. 19 advertisement, the store proclaimed: “It often happens when PIGGLY WIGGLY opens in a city that the retailers become panic-stricken and attempt to drive PIGGLY WIGGLY out by selling some goods at a loss.”
But according to the announcement, neither Piggly Wiggly nor its low prices were going anywhere thanks to the company’s “purchasing power, scientific management and low overhead expense.”
Days later, another advertisement ran. The layered message conveyed the company’s maverick approach to the industry while simultaneously encouraging consumers to be more self-reliant. This Nov. 25 ad declared:
“You can’t order groceries from the Piggly Wiggly Stores by telephone. We want the people who desire health by eating clean groceries to come to Piggly Wiggly and select such things as they may want with their own hands. You take your own purchase with you; clerks, porters and delivery boys don’t pitch them around from pillar to post.”
Of course, the Piggly Wiggly wasn’t taking any chances in its campaign to change consumers shopping habits. Above all, the company understood how to lure folks in. Near the bottom of its Nov. 25 advertisement the store notified Asheville residents that throughout the day it would be giving away free (“F-R-E-E”) samples of Morning Glory Ham. “We are doing this in order that our customers may try this genuine, sugar-cured pig ham,” the promotion proclaimed.
Some things never change.
Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.