Americana: Tennessee

piggly wiggly: Self-Serving Stores All Over the World
September 13, 2011 to September 26, 2011

Tennessean Clarence Saunders had an industrialist vision to teach shopping habits; in 1915 he patented the concept for the self-serving grocery store: Piggly Wiggly. Saunders’ approach to the shopper of the self-serving grocery store was centered on an architectural arrangement of space where entry and exit points were controlled by turnstiles to usher customers down one-way processional isles. This vision for the grocery store would reform shopping behaviors of customers making them consumers that were the mirror image of the modern technological era. The exhibition, Piggly Wiggly: Self-Serving Stores All Over the World, features an architectural model of Saunders’ United States patent for the Self-Serving Store dated November 2, 1920.1 The model reveals a floor plan that completely absorbs the consumer into the process of production blurring the line between product and buyer.

Until Saunders’ 1920s’ Piggly Wiggly Self-Serving Stores, grocery stores in Paris, London, Manhattan or Memphis were all the same— markets with counters where goods were requested from clerks and prices were negotiable but waiting times were long.

Saunders’ idea for a new consumer environment was to economize space, control costs and information, and squeeze return from every nickel invested. He aimed to create a machine-like environment that would make the land pay. 4 On October 1, 1916, pre-patent, Saunders placed an advertorial5 in the Memphis Sunday Morning; the headline read: The Piggly Wiggly, His Ears Have Been Slashed; His Toes Cut Off; His Eyes Punched Out; His Bones Broken and His Face Smashed: A Description of What Has Happened to the “Demon of High Prices.” The advertorial ended with statement: THIS NEW METHOD WILL MAKE IT POSSIBLE FOR YOU TO GET BY THE CHECKER’S DESK MUCH QUICKER AND WITHOUT ANY ‘JAMMING’ OF FOLKS BEHIND YOU.

Much can be said about the marketing genius of Saunders but most importantly he understood that it was wartime and that, while the men were abroad fighting, women were balancing the checkbooks at home. Saunders not only positioned the Piggly Wiggly brand as the solution for wartime economic woes, he offered that piggy Wiggly’s store design (floor plan) provided a more friendly efficient solution to the chaos of paying for goods. The Piggly Wiggly consumer was lulled by uniform display tactics for marketing brand goods (Campbell’s, Kellog’s, Heinz, and Quaker) alongside locally farmed and baked foods that Saunders recognized as being cheaper to buy and resell. Price tags, patented by Saunders as well, insured close proximity between hand and eye, need and want.

The name Piggly Wiggly was most likely produced from a blending of two pictures in Saunders’ mind’s eye: an observation of the logjams at store counters and a passing image glimpsed from a train window of piglets suckling. Wherever the inspiration came from, the name Piggly Wiggly embodied Saunders’ genius for marketing. The logo of a cute pig with a sanitary white paper hat and the name in a Helvetica-like typeface was enduring.

Saunders’ employee handbook was entitled the Inside of Things. This understanding of the relationship between image, space and profit led to the proliferation of Self-Serving Stores All Over the World, a universal imprint of convenience and excess, where “’everything’ legitimizes itself through a gathering of “real life” activity.” 6 The architecturally driven spatial evolution of spectacle, efficiency and glossy display of the self-serving stores became the cavernous interiors of big box retail and malls today.

Cydney M. Payton

Special thanks to:

Ryan Coleman and Matt Arnold, MA Candidates Architecture, CCA, for collaborating and implementing the architectural model for the exhibition.

Michael Freeman for generously sharing images and research from his forthcoming book: Freeman, Michael, Clarence Saunders and the Founding of Piggly Wiggly: the Rise and Fall of a Memphis Maverick, (Memphis: Tennessee, History Press, 2011).

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