A black and white photo of inside a self-service supermarket in 1941, showing shelves of soap powder, breakfast foods, and a sign above reading 'help yourself'.
A brief introduction to Architecture Historic photography Post-War Architecture

How England’s First Self-Service Store Heralded the Birth of the Modern Supermarket

Here we look at the evolution of grocery shopping, from the 19th century to the present day.

On 12 January 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, in a rundown still-rationed Britain, shoppers in East London’s Manor Park were treated to the opening, by the Co-op, of the country’s first permanent self-service store.

This seemingly small event was a revolutionary moment in the history of shopping.

Here we look at how and why this innovation came about, and the subsequent impact supermarkets have had on our lives, including on the built environment, as they responded to changes in society and customer requirements over the decades.

The pre-war shopping experience

A black and white photograph of a customer and a shop worker interacting over the counter. A tower of Crysella soap flakes is just behind them.
Interior of a counter service Co-op, pre self-service. Reproduced with permission of the Co-operative Heritage Trust 2023.

Historically, Co-operative Societies were forward-thinking, socially-committed organisations. Throughout the 19th century, they were founded as member-owned businesses, providing communities with grocery stores offering fairly traded food. The earliest were in the industrial heartlands of the North-West and the Midlands where large urban populations were trapped in cycles of debt.

Customers who opted to be members became co-owners, allocating them a share of the profits (known as the ‘dividend’) according to how much they spent in the stores, and giving them a say in how the Society was run.

A black and white photograph of shop staff outside their shop: the sign reads 'J.Sainsbury's'.
The shopkeeper, with his assistants, pictured around 1919, stand outside the first Sainsbury’s that opened in London’s Drury Lane in 1869.  Grocery stores such as this would often have traditional cream, green or brown tiling within, and goods piled up on shelves and on the counter. Image in the Public Domain.

Up until the 1940s, in most grocery stores including the Co-ops, the shopkeeper would serve customers individually (counter service), with assistants taking required items from the shelves, before they were added up at the till. Ham, cheese and bacon were sliced to order. Grocery shopping was often pleasurable, almost a social past-time.

During the Second World (1939-1945), this antiquated system was under strain as large numbers of women entered the workforce. With fewer staff available, the bureaucracy of rationing, and the constant threat of air raids, long queues built up.

In Britain, the Co-op movement was in the vanguard of how to modernise the system, having already conducted early trials of self-service during the war. Managers also visited America post-war in 1947 to see the radical concept fully in action.

America and the first self-service supermarkets

A black and white photo of people queueing in a supermarket.
The first Piggly-Wiggly self-service supermarket, Memphis, Tennessee, pictured in 1918. Today, there are still over 500 Piggly-Wiggly stores operating in America. Image in the Public Domain.

Clarence Saunders introduced self-service to the American public in 1916 with his first Piggly-Wiggly supermarket, allowing him to cut costs and offer lower prices. It sold pre-packaged food. By the late 1930s, other retailers had quickly copied the concept and such stores became common across the United States.

Saunders also introduced new ideas, such as baskets (then made of wicker), price tags on products, checkouts and shopping trolleys.

The self-service supermarket comes to Britain

A black and white photo of the inside of a supermarket. The shelves are stacked with dried goods, with large 'Help Yourself' signs above the aisles.
Interior of an early Co-op self-service supermarket, Blackley, Manchester, 1949, with a prominent sign: ‘Help Yourself.’ The customer of the left holds a just visible wire basket. A wholesale and manufacturing business (Co-operative Wholesale Society: CWS) had been formed to supply all Co-ops with goods. Reproduced with permission of the Co-operative Heritage Trust 2023.

The Co-op was in the vanguard of self-service stores throughout the 1950s. By 1951, it had 604 self-service supermarkets. By 1957, one-sixth of all Co-op grocery stores were self-service.

An illustrated guide with 6 illustrations instructing how to use self-service. A woman is handed a basket, selects different items and then reaches the check out.
A 1955 Sainsbury’s guide for customers to help them with self-service shopping. Image © The Sainsbury Archive.

Self-service was initially somewhat daunting and confusing to shoppers used to having a personal relationship with their shopkeepers. Putting groceries in a basket yourself almost felt like stealing to some. But with a wide range of goods clearly on display, cheaper prices and speedier shopping, housewives (as they were known then) did not take long to embrace the concept.

A page from a brochure: 'Questions and Answers on Co-operative Self-service', with instructions on how to collect a basket on entering the shop, select products and put them in the basket, and how to pay at the checkout.
A page from a CWS brochure: Questions and Answers on Co-operative Self-Service. Dating from around 1950, it was aimed at Co-operative Societies who may be thinking about changing from counter to self-service. The brochure offered extensive information, including staff duties, shop layout, and design of fixtures. Reproduced with permission of the Co-operative Heritage Trust 2023.

Various rival grocers had been trialling self-service themselves.  Within little more than a decade, self-service supermarkets were operating all over the country. In 1948 the same year as the Co-op, Tesco, originally founded in 1919 as a market stall selling groceries in Hackney, London, opened its first self-service store in St Alban’s, Hertfordshire.

A black and white photo of shop staff at the tills in a supermarket.
Marks & Spencer’s first self-service store, Wood Green, London, 1948, with staff wearing uniforms. Image © The Marks and Spencer Company Archive.

Marks & Spencer also trialed the concept in 1948 in their Wood Green, London, branch before self-service became a normal part of shopping in its stores in the 1950s.

A black and white photo of an empty supermarket.
Sainsbury’s first self-service store, Croydon, Greater London. The elements of supermarket design that are familiar to us today already in evidence – island displays (‘gondolas’), shelving, aisles, refrigeration units, fluorescent lighting, checkouts, as well as wire baskets and shopping trolleys. Image © The Sainsbury Archive.

Sainsbury’s opened a self-service store in Croydon in 1950 selling pre-packaged goods. It was not until the launch of their Lewisham store in London in 1955, the largest self-service store in Europe, that shoppers could also buy bread and fresh produce. (The company closed its last counter service, in Rye Lane, Peckham in 1982). Marks & Spencer’s first own-brand food products ‘St Michael’ appeared in 1954 (it had been using the name on clothing since 1928). Sainsbury’s had been selling own-name food products since before the advent of self-service.

Other retailers to embrace this new retail experience included Waitrose which began self-service in Streatham, London, in 1955. Morrisons (which started as an egg and butter merchant in a Bradford market) in 1958. And Asda who converted an old cinema into a self-service supermarket (initially known as Queens) in Castleford, West Yorkshire in 1963.

Supermarket architecture

1940s and 1950s, the advent of purpose-built supermarkets

A black and white photo of the facade of a Co op with 'self service store' on the signage.
The Co-op’s Ipswich Central Food Hall, photographed in 1954, following its conversion into a self-service store. Reproduced with permission of the Co-operative Heritage Trust 2023.

Initially, because of post-war building controls and shortages of materials, self-service supermarkets in Britain were created from existing shops and buildings, including redundant cinemas. Licences were issued by the Ministry of Food to retailers prepared to experiment with self-service.

A black and white photo of a Waitrose supermarket.
Waitrose first self-service supermarket, purpose-built in 1955, Streatham, London. 1954 had seen the end to wartime food rationing in Britain, followed by a rapid growth in consumption. By the early 1970s, there were 50 Waitrose branches in total. Image © John Lewis Partnership Archive Collection.

By the late 1950s, purpose-built supermarkets were being constructed in high streets up and down the country. These were often largely single storey buildings with a plate glass frontage and windowless side walls, fairly basic in design, sometimes with bright lino or composite tile flooring within.

Such stores needed fewer staff and could offer lower prices. Many rival grocers who failed to convert to the supermarket concept found that they could not compete.

A photo of a colourful mosaic with people undertaking agricultural roles and industrial images such as milking cows, a boat transporting goods, and weaving.
Immense ceramic tile mural, 8 by 6 metres, designed by G Bajio, a Hungarian artist in 1956, for the former Co-operative supermarket, Stevenage, Hertfordshire. The mural reflects the spirit of the Co-operative Movement by depicting a balanced economy: industry, transport, agriculture and commerce. Early Co-ops often featured the Co-operative Movement’s iconic symbols of wheatsheaves, bees and clasped hands. Listed Grade II. Image © Historic England DP247632.

In the 1950s, supermarkets were also being specially constructed in some of England’s first New Towns, These towns, including Stevenage, as well as Harlow and Basildon in Essex, were established not far from London under the New Towns Act of 1946, to check London’s sprawling growth and attract young families by offering modern housing and and facilities.

The CWS had founded its own architectural department in the late 19th century which designed many Co-op stores across the country in a wide variety of styles, including in New Towns where some buildings featured striking friezes and tile or mosaic murals, such as Guildford’s Co-operative Corner in Hertfordshire Surrey, and Stevenage’s Co-op supermarket (pictured above).

A photo of a neo-classical style two storey shop.
A typical neo-classical-style Marks & Spencer supermarket, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, carrying the distinctive gold and green fascia, introduced in 1924, that featured on many of its stores. Image © Historic England/MBC01/03/022.

Marks & Spencer pursued a different course over the decades until the early 1960s, largely keeping continuity with the neo-classical style favoured by the retailer in the 1920s and 1930s, with strict geometry of form, Portland stone, and an emphasis on verticality.

The firm employed Robert Lutyens, son of the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens, as a consultant. Between the mid-1930s and the 1950s, he had designed over 40 stores whose austere facades had a grid system of square tiles of artificial stone in pale cream and orange.

Marks and Spencer abandoned its policy of uniformity of style in the 1970s and 1980s.

1960s and 1970s: Era of major social change

A photo of people walking around a courtyard with a Sainsbury's supermarket in the background.
Sainsbury’s Centre, Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, West Midlands. The retailer, along with its rivals, built many supermarkets within town centres. Tesco, for example, was fast expanding, opening a store every ten days 1965-1966. Image © The Sainsbury Archive.

The 1960s was a decade of radical social change, leading to supermarkets increasing the range and number of products they sold and needing bigger premises.

Women were going out to work in substantial numbers for the first time and wanted more convenience. (The birth of the sliced white loaf in 1961 was powerful signifier of a cultural shift towards convenience). A growing interest in one-stop shopping saw Sainsbury’s, for example, spurred to introduce non-food products, including cleaning products, shampoo and toilet paper.

Increasing post-war affluence saw almost one-third of households now owning a fridge making fresh food storage more practical. In 1960, Marks & Spencers introduced fresh chilled chicken for the first time (before 1953, chickens were only reared for eggs). By 1973, convenience foods were available in 100 of its stores.

Sainsbury’s opened a wine department in 1972 in its Bretton, Cambridgeshire store.

Marks & Spencer introduced sell-by dates in 1972, quickly copied by other retailers; later becoming a legal requirement.

A black and white photo of people on the beach.
Benidorm, Spain in 1964, one of the first popular package holiday destinations for Britons. Image via Creative Commons.

There were other shifts in society too. In post-war 1950s Britain, people ate what was in season. Meat and two veg was then a staple diet for most families. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, as overseas package holidays became more common and affordable, interest grew in more adventurous eating. Dishes like Spaghetti Bolognese became part of the diet. 

The growth of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and West Indian communities in Britain too meant people could experience other new foods. In 1973, Marks & Spencer, for example, introduced frozen Indian dishes, including Chicken Korma and Pork Vindaloo.

Supermarket shopping boomed.

1980s and 1990s: Age of Superstores

A photo of a supermarket in a barn style with a clay-tiled pitched roof.
Asda, South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, the first ‘Essex barn’ style superstore. The design, with its sweeping clay-tiled pitched roof, referenced Essex medieval tithe barns. Rival retailers reproduced the same style with varying degrees of success. Essex barns dominated Tesco superstore design. Image © Historic England DP232014.

With half of all households now owning a car, the big retailers realised that customers would shop more if they could use their vehicles. But supermarkets needed to expand beyond town centres where parking was limited and where there were often stringent planning restrictions. Edge-of-town developments (cheaper to build and easier to get planning permission for) offered extensive parking.

At first, such superstore architecture was mainly of a basic ‘Big Box’ type. However, as planning requirements and public taste evolved, supermarket design that referenced local architecture, such as the ‘Essex barn’ – often featuring clock towers – were prevalent in the 1980s and early 1990s.

A photo of a large tower above a supermarket.
Tesco, Thornton Heath, Croydon, Greater London, photographed in 1983. By the mid-1990s, Tesco was opening thirty stores a year. Image © Historic England JLP01/10/13257.

Superstores across the country soon offered a huge variety of food and services, including fresh fish and meat counters, in-store bakeries, coffee shops, household and clothing departments and on-site petrol stations.

By 2000, other services included pharmacies, creches and baby-changing facilities, technology, dry cleaning, photo printing, cash points and banks.

Despite concerns that such superstores were dominating the food industry and putting small independent shops out of business, the weekly one-stop supermarket shop had become a common feature of modern life for many households.

Supermarkets today

A photo of a large supermarket with an 'Aldi' sign above the entrance.
Aldi, Coventry, West Midlands. Image via Creative Commons.

Today changing shopping patterns are reflected in the different supermarket types, from the smaller convenience stores, such as Tesco Metro launched 1992, Sainsbury’s Local (1998) and Morrisons’ M Local (2012), to frozen food specialist Iceland, discount supermarkets, shopping malls, edge-of-town superstores and retail parks.

Modern technology also prompted a revival of home deliveries and new Click & Collect services.

Discount supermarkets have appeared such as the German-owned Aldi (1990) and Lidl (1994). With their no frills ‘Big Box’ architecture and low prices, they have steadily and successfully challenged the big players.

On the food front, supermarkets have continued to innovate amid consumer demands for a healthier and sustainable lifestyle – from a growing interest in plant-based, gluten-free and fermented foods, to where food comes from, and reducing the carbon footprint of distribution and packaging.

A photo of a glass supermarket with 'Amazon Fresh' signage.
The sixteenth Amazon Fresh store in London, Southwark Street, Southwark. All are in the capital. It opened March 2022. Image via Creative Commons.

The latest entrant to the supermarket eco-system is Amazon Fresh where there are no checkouts. Customers with an Amazon account scan a QR code on their mobile on the way in, put products (many of them own brand) directly into their bag and walk out of the store. Their account is charged remotely.

Cutting edge technology uses hundreds of cameras and depth-sensors, and software developed using deep-learning artificial-intelligence, to detect which items have been selected. (The system does not uses facial recognition).

Just like the early customers in the first self-service Co-op 75 years ago, some shoppers at Amazon Fresh today have admitted they have the strangest (unfounded) sense that they might be stealing.

Innovative supermarket architecture

From art deco to high tech, not all supermarkets look the same.

The following four examples are proof that a building as mundane and workaday as a supermarket can be both a large flexible retail space, as well as high quality architecture.

A black and white photo of a Marks & Spencer's store with a granite facade.
Marks & Spencer’s flagship store, The Pantheon, Oxford Street, London, its façade made of sleek highly polished ‘ebony’ granite. The windows had golden glazing bars. Built to designs by Robert Lutyens, the store opened 19 October 1938 selling food along with clothing. There was also a café. Listed Grade II in 2009. Another store of similar design opened in Leeds in 1951. Image © Historic England CC81/00103.

Marks & Spencer had a brief architectural flirtation with Art Deco styling. It built two glamorous stores to entice more upmarket customers, particularly women (in the Pantheon there were no men’s toilets and all the non-managerial staff were female).

The Pantheon’s lavish interior was richly appointed with walnut counters, teak doors and oak block floors. The smart café had three curved bars with upholstered red leather stools, and black and primrose glass Vitrolite walls. It was not until the late 1990s that Marks & Spencer reintroduced cafes.

The interior of the store is entirely modern today, development over the decades having stripped out such features.

A photo of a hi-tech silver structure.
Sainsbury’s supermarket, Camden, London, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and built in 1988. Listed Grade II in 2019. Image © Historic England/DP251196.

The Essex Barn-style supermarket largely fell out of favour towards the end of the 20th century. New-build supermarkets moved towards a more contemporary style of architecture. Asda pioneered the ‘Market Hall’ concept – stores that included glass atriums. Sainsbury’s was in the vanguard of high-profile design, putting its major stores out to competition, rather than using in-house architects.

Grimshaw’s supermarket above is constructed in High Tech style, with a visible steel frame, pre-fabricated aluminium panels and glass. The concept was based on traditional market halls with an exposed structure, curved ceiling and use of natural light. The store was well received.

A photo of a supermarket with sail-like roof canopy.
Sainsbury’s supermarket, Plymouth, Devon, designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, opened 1994. The striking architecture gives the store an easily visible iconic identity. Image © Historic England DPAA023631.

In South-West England, this Sainsbury’s supermarket references Plymouth’s maritime past, with its eleven dramatic curved ‘sails’ overlapping to create a continuous roof canopy over the entrance. The design also helps shelter shoppers by deflecting strong winds from the sea.

A large supermarket from above.
Sainsbury’s, Greenwich, London, designed by Chetwood Associates and opened in 1999 by chef and TV presenter, Jamie Oliver. Image © The Sainsbury Archive.

This Sainsbury’s superstore near the O2 Arena represented a complete rethink of unremarkable ‘Big Box’ supermarket architecture, both in its striking design and by maximising energy efficiency with solar panels and wind turbines.

In addition, the building minimised its environmental impact by using recycled materials, such as recycled aircraft and car tyres to make flooring, as well as recycled plastic bottles for the toilet walls. The toilets were also flushed by rainwater filtered through an on-site reed bed.

Despite strenuous lobbying by the 20th Century Society for its preservation, and being shortlisted for the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize, the supermarket was demolished in 2016 and replaced by an Ikea store.

By Nicky Hughes.

Further information

1 comment on “How England’s First Self-Service Store Heralded the Birth of the Modern Supermarket

  1. That was really interesting and satisfyingly in-depth re both history and architecture. I remember the earlier counter service when I was young, when our local grocery also delivered a weekly ‘big shop’. I even worked there as a ‘saturday girl’ before leaving school, lol.

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