Original publish date: November 15, 2017
It’s Thanksgiving week in Indianapolis and all over the Circle City, Hoosiers are heading to grocery stores to buy turkey and all the trimmings. No doubt families will be bouncing words back-and-forth to each other off their big screen TVs with belts loosened and feet propped up on recliner footrests all over town. The TV will most likely be tuned to either the news or to football. This holiday, I decided to write about an eccentric American businessman who covers both subjects. Clarence Saunders, the man who brought us the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, might be the most interesting man you’ve never heard of.
Clarence Saunders was born on August 9, 1881 to an impoverished family in Amherst County Virginia. An area located inside the birthplace triangle of Jack Daniels, the Confederacy, and Thomas Jefferson. Saunders would absorb the ideas of that region: the good, the bad, and the ugly. One of those ideas would change the world, another would banish him from the hall of immortals and the last would ruin him.
Saunders left school at 14 to clerk in a Clarksville, Tennessee grocery store. By the age of 19, he had graduated to salesman for a wholesale grocer. In 1902 he moved to Memphis where he formed a grocery wholesale cooperative. On September 6, 1916, Saunders launched the self-service revolution in the United States by opening the first self-service Piggly Wiggly store, at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis, Tennessee. With its characteristic entrance turnstile, customers selected goods for themselves right off the shelves and paid in cash. Before the Piggly Wiggly, products were placed on shelves behind glass counters, dry goods were weighed out from large barrels by store employees and bills were settled with credit or barter arrangements. The concept of the “Self-Serving Store” was patented by Saunders in 1917.
Saunders’ simple plan revolutionized the idea of the common supermarket. His Piggly Wiggly store removed unnecessary clerks, created elaborate aisle displays and rearranged the store requiring customers to view all of the merchandise. Just like today, a shopper picked up a basket (though Piggly Wiggly’s were made of wood, not plastic) and went through the store to purchase everything. Ever wonder why bread, meat, milk and eggs are always in the BACK of the store? You can thank Clarence Saunders and Piggly Wiggly for adding those extra steps to your fit bits. And then, after customers walked to the back of the store to check off their shopping lists, the cash registers are located at the front of the store. Brilliant.
To say that Clarence Saunders was unconventional would be like saying water is wet. For the store’s openings, Saunders held a beauty contest that he advertised in local newspapers. At the door, Saunders shook hands and gave flowers and balloons to the children as they entered to the raucous sounds of a Dixieland band. Newspaper reporters posed as contest judges by awarding five and ten dollar gold coins to every woman, while supplies lasted. Saunders was quoted at that first store opening as saying, “One day Memphis shall be proud of Piggly Wiggly… And it shall be said by all men… That the Piggly Wigglies shall multiply and replenish the earth with more and cleaner things to eat.”
As for the name Piggly Wiggly, nobody knows for sure and Clarence Saunders never explained its origin. One story says that, while riding a train, he looked out his window and saw several little pigs struggling to get under a fence, which prompted him to think of the catchy name. Another explanation states that when Saunders was once asked why he had chosen such an unusual name, he slyly replied, ‘So people will ask that very question.’”
The store’s format was drastically different from its competitors but soon became the standard for the modern supermarket. By 1922, six years after opening the first store, Piggly Wiggly had grown into 1,200 stores in 29 states. Around this same time, Saunders began construction of a pink marble mansion in Memphis that could make Elvis Presley blush. Saunders franchised his concept and soon listed Piggly Wiggly on the New York Stock Exchange. It was heady air for a poor kid from the backwoods of Virginia. Though his model quickly took off, he wasn’t at the helm for very long.
Then, in early 1923, a group of franchised Piggly Wiggly stores in New York State failed. Merrill Lynch and other Wall Street speculators viewed the failure as an opportunity and attempted a hostile takeover on Piggly Wiggly stock. With a loan of $10 million from a number of Southern bankers, plus a bit of his own money, Saunders counteracted by buying a large amount of his company’s stock in hopes of driving up the price. He flamboyantly declared his intent in newspaper ads. Saunders bought Piggly Wiggly stock until he had orders for 196,000 of the 200,000 outstanding shares. The firm’s share price went from $39 in late 1922 to $124 by March 20, 1923. The New York Stock Exchange declared that Saunders had cornered the market and the price was ultimately driven back down. Saunders had to sell his stock at a loss, costing him $3 million and forcing him into bankruptcy. Saunders’ financial woes meant that he had no further association with his Piggly Wiggly brainchild.
Because of this financial reversal, Saunders was forced to sell his unfinished Memphis mansion, nicknamed the Pink Palace, to the city. It eventually became the city’s historical and natural history museum. Today, the Pink Palace includes a scale model of that first Piggly Wiggly store inside, complete with 2¢ packets of Kellogg’s Cornflakes and 8¢ cans of Campbell’s Soup.
Although no longer at the helm of Piggly Wiggly, Saunders wasn’t done redesigning the grocery store business. He went on to create a new grocery store chain, which he named the “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores” chain in 1928. The chain, known by locals as “Sole Owner” stores, flourished. Within a year there were 675 stores operating with annual sales of $60 million in 1929. It was during this last year of the Roaring Twenties when Saunders saw perhaps his greatest opportunity slip through his hands.
In 1929, to promote his newest grocery venture, Saunders purchased a professional football team. The team practices must have been quite a sight with the team owner dressed in his business suit catching punts alongside his players on the gridiron. He named his new team “The Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers”, but fans just called them “The Tigers.” In 1929, the National Football League was in its 10th year and consisted of 12 teams, including the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Although the NFL played a regular season capped by a championship game, they were also free to play teams outside of the league. These games earned the individual NFL teams much needed extra money.
The Tigers played a 12 game season with all but one game in Memphis. During the 1929 season, the Tigers played pro teams like the Nashvile O. Geny Greenies, St. Louis Trojans and Hominy Indians (who were all Native Americans from Oklahoma). One of the teams Saunders brought to Memphis was a team called the Notre Dame All Stars. The four players photographed on horseback were not part of Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but it didn’t matter to Saunders, they added pizzazz to the game and made an eye catching promotional photo. Saunders used his newspaper grocery store ads to promote his football team. Newspaper stories about his team brought more attention to his grocery business.
In addition, Saunders lured two NFL teams to play in Memphis. The Chicago Bears were first to appear, followed by the World Champion Green Bay Packers. On November 23, Saunders hosted the Chicago Bears who were led by their Hall of Fame player/coach George Halas and superstar Red Grange. A crowd of 6,500 crammed into Hodges stadium to watch the game. At one point in the third quarter, the Tigers closed to within 1 point, but the Bears scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 39-19.
On December 15, the week after the NFL season ended, the Green Bay Packers, undefeated NFL champions, came to town for what they expected to be an easy exhibition game. After all, opponents had scored only three touchdowns against the Pack all season. The 12-0-1 Packers were led by their Hall of Fame player/coach Curly Lambeau, Johnny “Blood” McNally, Cal Hubbard, and Mike Michalske. 8000 fans jammed Hodges stadium and the sidelines. The Memphis fans watched the Tigers manhandle the Packers with a 20 -0 lead going into the fourth quarter. The Packers avoided total humiliation by scoring in the final minutes but were shocked by a 20-6 loss.
Saunders’ Tigers were no slackers. The team included many players who had some prior success on college teams. He increased the talent level with Larry Bettencourt and Ken Strong both members of the College Football Hall of Fame. The next year the NFL extended an invitation to Saunders to join the league. Saunders, a brilliant but highly eccentric micromanager, insisted that all team decisions pass through him even though the team had a business manager and a coach. One of the decisions included putting his oldest son into one of the games during the 1929 season. Legend states that Saunders didn’t join the NFL because he did not like to travel to other cities for away games.
Saunders promised an even better season for 1930. However the Sole Owner chain went into bankruptcy in 1930, a victim of The Great Depression and the football team folded. Conversely, Piggly Wiggly rolled on and by 1932, the chain had grown to 2,660 stores earning over $180 million annually. Today the Green Bay Packers are worth over $ 2 billion and the Bears are worth $ 1.5 billion. However, Grocery Store innovator and would be NFL-owner Clarence Saunders was not done yet.
In 1937 Saunders designed and constructed a prototype of a fully automated store he called the “Keedoozle” (pronounced “Key Does All”). His automated store’s design contained very large vending machines with merchandise displayed as single units within a glass cabinet with a keyhole beneath. Customers entering the store were given a small pistol-like key that they placed in the keyhole below the goods they wished to buy. The quantity desired was determined by the number of times they pulled the key’s trigger. This action, recorded on punched tape, activated back office machinery to assemble the order, which was then dispatched to the checkout on a conveyor belt. On reaching the checkout, the customer’s tape was run through a reader to produce the bill, their groceries were boxed and waiting. This system eliminated the need for shopping carts, decreased space requirements, reduced labor needed to stock shelves, and cut customers’ time at checkout.
Saunders Keedoozle was abandoned after the US entered World War II. In 1948, a new and improved version of the self service store opened at twelve locations but the Keedoozle closed forever in 1949. Right up until the time of his death on September 23, 1953, Saunders was developing plans for another automatic store system called the “Foodelectric.” The concept is a clear predecessor to today’s self checkout lanes. Saunders described it as follows: “The store operates so automatically that the customer can collect her groceries herself, wrap them and act as her own cashier. It eliminates the checkout crush, cuts overhead expenses and enables a small staff to handle a tremendous volume… I can handle a $2 million volume with only eight employees.” The store, which was to be located two blocks from the first Piggly Wiggly store in downtown Memphis, never opened.
Saunders had a reputation for brilliance, contrariness, and eccentricity. His death came just as the full impact of his “better idea” for grocery merchandising was becoming apparent; his creative genius was decades ahead of his time. However, his innovations were not only limited to grocery stores and football. Although Saunders never ran for public office, he was one of the first to use his position as a business owner to campaign for a political candidate. He stumped for Tennessee candidates through his grocery store’s newspaper ads. His ads swayed Tennessee Senatorial and Gubernatorial campaigns for at least 4 cycles in the 1920-30s Era.
One last innovation goes mostly uncredited and is often misidentified. It is the Piggy Wiggly logo. For generations, people wondered why Warner Brothers never sued Piggly Wiggly for their logo. After all, it seems to be an obvious rip-off of Porky Pig. Well, truth is, Piggly Wiggly opened their first store in 1916, and they have used their anthropomorphic pig with a sales cap logo right from the beginning. Porky Pig wasn’t drawn till 1935.
Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly Self-serve grocery store concept saved shoppers time, money and made the trip to the grocery more enjoyable for generations to come. Today, according to its website, the Piggly Wiggly chain has more than 530 stores serving 17 states. Its founding is one of the stranger stories in the history of retail. And its founder, Clarence Saunders, was clearly something out of the ordinary.