John James Sainsbury and his wife Mary Ann opened their first shop at 173 Drury Lane, Holborn, London, in 1869. The store sold fresh food and later moved into packaged goods such as tea and sugar.
The Sainsburys took on an up-market approach to retailing. The floors were mosaic tiled and the counters were marble. Their main rival, Home & Colonial, had wooden counters and sawdust floors. The staff wore a white apron uniform and the cast iron J Sainsbury sign became more visible as new stores opened. An early, but aggressive advertising campaign saw the store advertised on London Busses and Trams.
By the early 1920s the stores each had six departments: 1) Dairy, 2) Bacon & Hams, 3) Poultry & Game, 4) Cooked Meats, 6) Fresh Meats.
In 1922, J Sainsbury was incorporated as a private company, as 'J. Sainsbury Limited'. It was Great Britain’s largest grocery group.
When John Sainsbury died in 1928, his company had grown to 128 shops. His last words were said to have been 'Keep the shops well lit'. His eldest son, John Benjamin, took over the reins.
The company continued to grow and a variety of family members joined the staff in senior roles. The Thoroughgood chain of stores was purchase in 1936 to ready the company for further growth, but the Second World War intervened and with the majority of the stores located in London, severe bomb damage and the loss of earnings combined to hinder the company’s growth and progress.
The company recovered slowly, along with all the businesses that suffered during the War years, but it was a decision in the 1950s that would change the face of grocery trading in the United Kingdom. With Alan Sainsbury now chairman, the company opened its first self service store in Croydon, London. The company had pioneered home brand goods and it was forcing the pace once again.
In 1973, the company went public as J Sainsbury plc. It had up until that time been a family owned operation. It was the largest flotation that the London Stock Exchange had ever experienced. With employees offered a share incentive, the company once again paved the way for other companies to capitalise on the potential of trading publicly.
Sainsbury’s expansion grew apace and the focus was switched to increasing the stores in size to move into the self-service age. Sainsbury’s first foray into the world of non-food sale items was a joint venture with British Home Stores. The first new Savacentre Store was opened in Tyne & Wear in 1977. Two years later, Sainsbury’s got together with Belgian retailer, GB-Inno-BM, to set up a chain of do-it-yourself stores under the Homebase name.
Continued expansion and growth saw company profits grow from £15million to £168million in just ten years up to 1985. The growth of Tesco and its positioning and marketing qualities saw Sainsbury’s lose its status as the UK’s premier grocery store, but it still makes around £600million a year, so it is unlikely to be too bothered. There are probably five major supermarket chains in the UK and their power and profits have seen them alter the landscape of retailing in the UK. The high streets that the likes of Sainsbury’s began life on are in decline, as out of town superstore complexes have taken over.
Along with its colleagues in grocery retail, Sainsbury’s has diversified into banking, communications, insurance and a number of other lucrative non-grocery businesses. The days of a Poultry & Game counter are long gone.
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