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Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes 1945-1975: Shopper reactions to the supermarket in early post-war England


The Rise of the Supermarket in Britain

Supermarkets emerged in America in the early twentieth century, but their development in Britain occurred much later. The first self service food shops in Britain were started by the co-operative movement before the end of the Second World War, but few grocers followed this trend. It is estimated that there were just 10 self service shops in 1947.  The development of self service retailing and the supermarket in Britain was held back by the food rationing system imposed during the war. After the war, the Labour government, worried over the impact of unfettered spending on the troubled post war economy, was slow to relinquish these controls. When the Conservatives returned to power, partly on the back of the votes of angry housewives struggling to feed their families, rationing was withdrawn. Rationing finally ended in 1954.

Following the demise of rationing, there was a rapid growth in personal consumption in Britain in the 1950s. This allowed the supermarket to develop. Both the government and some elements of the grocery trade were also keen to promote self service stores, which were seen as more efficient for both customer and retailer as they required less labour. Tesco and Sainsbury’s were some of the first multiple stores to introduce self service. Tesco, which had twenty self service units in operation by 1950 and thirty five by May 1951, reported satisfactory trading in this new type of store. In relation to supermarket trading a number of new chains also emerged. Premier, Victor Value and Fine Fare had 330 supermarkets between them by mid 1961, five times the number that Tesco and Sainsbury’s had at that time. In 1950 around 50 supermarkets were in existence, increasing in number to 572 by 1961. By 1969 there were 3400 supermarkets in Great Britain.

Store Layouts

The first self service stores and supermarkets did not resemble the vast hypermarkets we are familiar with today, but were recognizably new and modern spaces. The supermarket was defined in the trade journal Self Service and the Supermarket as “a store not less than 2000 square feet of sales area, with three or more check outs and mainly operated by self service, whose range of merchandise comprises all basic food groups, including fresh meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, plus basic household requisites.”

For the first time, customers could do their shopping all under one roof. Without over the counter recommendations, the planning and layout of supermarkets became more important. At first supermarket interiors were austere and modern, although during the 50s commentators called for a softening of these harsh spaces through the use of light and colour. Shop layouts were re-planned – counters and fittings replaced by wall shelving, free standing shelves arranged to create smooth customer flow, attractive displays were placed at the back of shops to tempt customers in. The supermarket interior also demonstrated a commitment to hygiene – which became a legal requirement in the late 1940s. New fittings designed for easy cleaning were used, and plastics and laminates employed rather than wood.

Products and Choice

The supermarket became a dazzling and potentially confusing space for consumers, as both layout and merchandise were transformed. During the 1950s and 1960s the range of food products expanded. Convenience goods such as pre-packaged cake mixes became increasingly common. Shelves were stacked with new and exotic imports including garlic, aubergines, spaghetti, pizza and new varieties of cheeses. Mollie Tarrant, a commentator for the British Market Research Board, noted in 1964 that: “To an unparalleled extent, the housewife can also shop for food, household goods and other things in the one store. Inside the supermarket she is in a new and exciting, although to some people a confusing, atmosphere. She may shop to music or relayed sales messages: she is confronted with new products, daily bargains, unusual forms and colour combinations in packaging and increasingly sophisticated methods of display.”

Moral Scares

Supermarkets were designed to tempt the shopper, but this raised the risk of shoplifting. Wire baskets were used to make shoppers keep their purchases on display and enabled the shopper to select their own goods and carry them to the checkout. Not everyone appreciated this innovation, and one female shopper is said to have hurled her wire basket at Alan Sainsbury in disgust at the opening of a new Sainsbury’s store in the early 1950s.

The supermarket also offered other kinds of temptation. The easy access to alcohol that the supermarket offered raised alarm bells in some quarters. A report by the Christian Economic and Social Research foundation, published in 1974, argued that supermarket off licence was responsible for a rise in drunkenness in women and young people. The report anxiously noted: “The pub is a resort of respectable males and not a place for a young woman to go on her own; the off-licence attached to a public house is hardly better. But the off-licence attached to a public house is hardly better. But the off licence department of a grocery supermarket is respectable for all…”


Women, it is claimed, bore the burden of household food shopping, and it was assumed that they would be the main users of the supermarket. It was claimed in the late 1960s that husbands helped with shopping in 8 per cent of cases every day or most days and helped “regularly” with shopping 35 per cent of the time. Fifteen years later it was calculated that a quarter of husbands were occasionally sent out with instructions to do grocery shopping. It was thought that shopping for the family was a matter of pride and anxiety for many women. As more women went out to work, they had less time to invest in food preparation, and supermarket shopping became increasingly important. The 1964 Market Research Board Report stressed the importance of class in housewives’ reactions to the supermarket; the middle classes were represented as disapproving of the loss of deference that came with counter service.


Aside from contemporary market research, there is little evidence of how the coming of the supermarket changed the experiences of shoppers across Britain between 1947 and 1975. The Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes Project is designed to explore the reactions of shoppers from different geographical regions to the supermarket. It will examine how both men and women saw the supermarket. Moreover, the roles of social class and ethnicity will be considered. The research project includes a nationwide survey, using questionnaires and interviews.




Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes 1945-1975:
Shopper reactions to the supermarket in early post-war
England is sponsored by the
Arts and Humanities Research Council