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Seventy-five years since the opening of Britain's first "supermarket"

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews
Published on 12th January, 2023 2 min read

Seventy-five years since the opening of Britain's first "supermarket"

An image inside a supermarket. Two women are shopping and picking cans up from a shelf.

Today (12/01/2023) marks seventy-five years since the London Co-operative Society (LCS) opened what historians often consider to be Britain’s first ever supermarket. On the 12th January 1948, a branch of the LCS inaugurated a new shop in Manor Park (now located in the London Borough of Newham but, at that time, still part of East Ham, Essex). Though this establishment did not refer to itself as a “supermarket”, it marked an important turning point in British retail, due to one key characteristic: customers were allowed to handle the products themselves, before payment. Up to that point, grocery shoppers in Britain would give their shopping list to a shop assistant, who would then select the required items on their behalf. 

“Self-service” – as it came to be known – was a much more efficient process, allowing customers to browse at their leisure, and cutting down on waiting times. In fact, it was already highly popular in the United States, where the first self-service grocery store had been launched in Memphis, Tennessee, back in 1917. Following the opening of the Manor Park shop, this new model quickly spread across the country: in 1950, a branch of Sainsbury’s in Croydon converted to self-service and, by 1963, some 13,000 UK shops had followed suit. In turn, this development paved the way for the creation of Britain’s out-of-town “superstores”, the first of which opened in West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, in November 1964.

Nowadays, supermarkets remain ubiquitous in most countries and, in the past ten years, a new form of “self-service” (the self-service checkout) and the rise of online retail have, together, further streamlined the shopping process. Nevertheless, whilst supermarkets often offer convenience, their rise to market dominance came at the expense of smaller, independent shopkeepers (such as greengrocers, butchers, and fishmongers) and, for better or worse, changed Britain’s high streets beyond recognition.

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews is Senior Editor at British Online Archives, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Between October 2018 and September 2021, he taught in the Schools of History and Languages at the University of Leeds, and between September 2021 and June 2022, he was a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. His research centres primarily on the history of anarchism in the Hispanic World and North America, and he has several publications on the Spanish and Argentinian labour movements. He is currently working on his first monograph.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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