Winners write history. Particularly so the history of grocery, monopolised by today’s titans.
But the supermarket as we know it today wasn’t invented by Tesco, or even The Co-op, as it claims. The man to thank for the birth of the one-stop shop is Patrick Galvani, now 89, and living a modest life with his wife in Eastbourne. As head of Premier Supermarkets, once the most important mover in British grocery retail, Galvani literally wrote the book on self-service (Going Self-Service, with Arthur Arnell, in 1952).
“Tesco was several years behind us,” recalls Galvani, wistfully. “We could be talking about Premier Supermarkets today, not Tesco - although I probably would have been long dead with the pressure.”
Galvani still has the charm - and head of hair - he possessed in Premier’s heyday (“Tall, handsome and silver haired… a cool, calm businessman,” gushed Everywoman magazine in 1956). And he’s still looking forward, talking about automation, the internet and so on - a fascination for the new inspired when he stepped into a US self-service grocery store in the 1940s.
“My first sight of it was fantastic,” says Galvani, recalling his posting to San Francisco with the Naval Information Service, after serving as a Naval lieutenant in the war. “My colleague took me to a Post Exchange store on Treasure Island. The selection they had! You could pick up products and look at them and put them back if you didn’t like them. There was no queuing at the counter. I was thrilled.”
Back then self-service was an alien concept to most British shopkeepers, whose margins were being constantly squeezed by mounting commodity prices, staffing costs and competition. Customers didn’t have it much better either - long queues and a lack of choice characterised the shopping experience in post-war Britain. Still, few shared Galvani’s enthusiasm for the supermarket craze sweeping the US.
“The people of this country have long been accustomed to counter service, and it is doubtful whether they would be content to wander round a store hunting for goods,” opined this magazine in 1947 as British retailers experimented with self-service. The Grocer was wrong. Within five years, almost 1,000 shopkeepers had switched over and were enjoying boosted turnover and slashed overheads as a result.
During the Second World War, the Co-op could claim to have opened the first self-service store, using cannibalised shopping equipment. And in 1948, it opened the first full-service store, in Manor Park, Essex. Sainsbury’s was another early pioneer, launching its first self-service store in 1950.
But it was Galvani’s store, in Streatham, opened in 1951, that marked the birth of the supermarket in the sense we understand it today. As the sales manager for Express Dairies, Galvani persuaded the board to launch a one-stop shop, stocking everything from fruit & veg, canned goods and dairy to household and personal care items (it was the first grocery store to stock sanitary towels). “The Co-op claims to have been the first but didn’t have the selection,” he says. “Sainsbury’s said the one in Croydon was the first but it wasn’t because they didn’t sell greengroceries - it was a large self-service store. I vividly recall Lord Alan Sainsbury coming to Streatham Hill and saying: ‘Oh my god, you’ll never see fresh produce in my stores’.”
Early pioneers reaped huge rewards.Self-service lowered wage costs to 5.5% of turnover - the average for the time was 7%. The development of supermarkets lowered overheads and raised turnover, leading to cheaper prices. Premier Supermarkets’ butter was on average 2d a pound cheaper than the competition, meat 4d a pound cheaper and instant coffee 6d a tin cheaper. In the early 1950s, average weekly sales for grocery stores stood at around £100 - Streatham Hill was taking about £1,000.
By 1957, and now a chain of 12 supermarkets, Premier Supermarkets - as it was now called - was filling 200,000 baskets a week and turning over £3m a year. “I intend to open lots more supermarkets if I don’t [have] a nervous breakdown,” Galvani said at the time. The openings continued through the 1950s. And the repercussions were massive, remembers Galvani.
Supermarkets didn’t just lower prices and free up time for housewives (arguably leading to women’s liberation), however. They changed the supply sector forever, forcing manufacturers to begin packaging goods - until then sold in bulk to retailers who would divide them into portions for customers at the counter. “There was resentment,” says Galvani. “I went down to see Lord Trenchard who was running Wall’s at the time and I said they would have to put their sausages in cellophane packs and he said ‘we can’t have that - it will put a ha’penny on every pack’. We said you have to and in the end they did. I also went down to Huntley & Palmers, had a meeting with the board and said ‘look, chaps, you have to start putting your biscuits in packs’. They did eventually - they recognised they had to.”
The reticence of established suppliers to adapt allowed more forward-thinking players to win listings, adds Galvani. But not all in Express Dairies were as forward-thinking. By 1960, after the closure of Premier Supermarkets’ Croydon branch (see right), rifts had begun to appear between Galvani and the Express board.
Galvani wanted to buy the 212-strong estate of northern retailer Irwins. “The chief accountant said to the board, ‘Galvani’s going too fast, he ought to slow down,’” he recalls.
With the board refusing to back him, Galvani could only watch as Irwins was snapped up by friend and rival Tesco founder Jack Cohen (“A barrow boy but a very nice guy”), a key landmark in Tesco’s history. The final blow for Galvani came in 1963, when the board blocked his plans to join the Green Shields Stamps scheme, again later adopted by Tesco.
“Express was worried, as a supplier of cheese and milk to other retailers, that they’d upset them if they began accepting stamps. They thought the retailers would stop taking Express cheese and yoghurt. I quit because of the stamps. I had this continual stoppage of the development of our supermarkets by the board. I was furious.
A year after Galvani quit, Express Dairies put the brakes on for good, selling its 39 supermarkets to Unilever’s Mac Fisheries. Meanwhile rival dairy Associated (which in 1965 became Asda) and the rest of today’s big four continued along the tracks Galvani had laid. They all owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneering Patrick Galvani.
Born: 11 September 1922 in Bures, Suffolk, the son of matinée idol Dino Galvani
Family: Married to Madeleine. Has one son, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren
Career: Served as a naval lieutenant on landing craft during the Second World War, seeing action during the Normandy landings. Later worked for the Naval Information Service before joining Express Dairies in 1948. Oversaw the company’s conversion to self-service and later headed up subsidiary Premier Supermarkets after opening Britain’s first in 1951. He quit Premier in 1963 and later looked after Express’s canned food and tea room businesses before moving into hospitality in 1975, buying a Bedfordshire hotel that went on to win an AA Rosette. He retired in 1986