The history of UK supermarkets

Supermarket history

Take a trip down retail memory lane with 4Food's history of the nation's favourite supermarkets


In 1965, there came a mighty union between three Yorkshiremen, when Associated Dairies & Farm Stores MD, Noel Stockdale, joined forces with Peter and Fred Asquith, who ran a self-service supermarket in a converted cinema in Castleford, West Yorkshire. Just like that, Asquith + Dairies became ASDA. In 1968 the company took over two struggling US discount stores and broke away from the small high street store model to create a large retail destination. In their first week in charge, sales at the new Nottingham store jumped from £6,000 to £30,000 per week. With huge profits under their belt, ASDA developed its own-brand range and began to build yet more supermarkets. Two years later they had 30 stores in the North and began expansion to the south of England. Today, there are 346 Asda supermarkets in the UK employing 140,000 people.


Way back in 1899, William Morrison was an egg and butter merchant with a dream. After making his name on the market scene, he opened his first town centre shop in 1958, the first in Bradford to offer self-service and to have prices on its products. In 1961 the company converted an old cinema into their first supermarket - and called it 'Victoria'. It spanned 5,000 sq ft of retail space selling fresh meat and greengrocery with the added lure of free parking. In 1999, Morrison's celebrated its centenary with the opening of its 100th store but the big boom was to come in 2004 when a takeover of Safeway boosted Morrison's number of stores to 375 and made the company the UK's 4th largest supermarket group.

Marks and Spencer

In 1884 Michael Marks, a Russian born Polish refugee, opened a market stall in Leeds. He didn't speak English, so he attached a sign to the front of his stall saying, 'Don't ask the price, it's a penny'. In 1930, he opened a store in Marble Arch, London with partner Tom Spencer, and M&S was born. A food department was opened a year later. The company soon branched into 'convenience food', selling sandwiches from the ice cream counters in its stores. Its range of ready prepared meals grew ever more exotic over the decades, introducing international dishes like lamb rogan josh (in 1974) and chicken Kiev (in 1979). When 'avocado pears' were first stocked, they were sold with instructions on how to eat them, after confused customers thought they were for puddings and served them with custard. Today, M&S still has one market stall which operates at Grainger Market in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.


It's 1919 and Tesco founder, Jack Cohen, begins his retail career selling surplus groceries from an East End market stall. His first day's profit was £1. The company got its name from an amalgamation of Jack's surname with the name of TE Stockwell a tea supplier. Tseco's first own brand product was Tesco Tea, hitting the shelves in 1924. The company's stores began to pop up across the country and, in 1961, Tesco Leicester was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest store in Europe. It wasn't just the shops that were big - in 1979, annual sales reached £1 billion. In 2004, Tesco announced annual profits of £2 billion. The company has 4,308 stores worldwide, employing a whopping 468,508 people.


Wallace Waite, Arthur Rose and (the apparently humble) David Taylor opened a small grocery shop in West London in 1904. Within a century it was to become one of the country's leading food retailers, employing more than 37,000 people. The John Lewis Partnership acquired the business in 1937, and opened the first Waitrose supermarket in 1955. Its aim was to combine the convenience of a supermarket with the expertise and service of a specialist shop. Unlike other major supermarkets, Waitrose isn't owned by shareholders; it's owned by everyone who works for the Partnership. The company has also been honoured with the Royal touch - it held a Royal Warrant with the Queen Mother and holds another with the Queen.


John and Mary Sainsbury opened their first shop in London's Drury Lane selling just butter, eggs and milk. In 1875 the fare got a little more exotic when imported Irish bacon was added to the range. The Sainsbury's high quality of food proved popular with customers and the company began a steady expansion, with 100 branches in London by 1903. In 1950 Sainsbury's opened a self-service store in Croydon, but the new model was not immediately popular and was described by one magazine as 'the easiest way in the world of spending too much money'. In areas with immigrant communities, Sainsbury's began to adjust their ranges to suit local tastes. The Swiss Cottage store, opened in 1959 in a Jewish community, sold salami from Italy, Hungary and Germany and sausage from Poland and Yugoslavia. During the 1980s a range of Japanese foods was available at the Telford store for workers at the Honda/Rover plant. These days, larger stores carry 30,000 different products.


SPAR was founded in the Netherlands in 1932 by Adriaan Van Wells in response to the grocery chains threatening to take over the retail market. He called his organisation DESPAR, an acronym of his philosophy, door eendrachtig samenwerken profiteren allen regelmatig, meaning 'by united cooperation all will profit'. As the company grew, its original policy stayed the same. Individual SPAR members remain independent but enjoy access to collective buying and marketing power. SPAR is the world's largest supermarket chain, present in 36 countries across five continents. In Japan the store operates under the sexy moniker 'HOTSPAR'.

The Co-op

On the cuddly side of consumerism, the Group was founded in Lancashire, way back in 1863 and, over 140 years, gradually grew into the world's largest consumer-owned business. In the 1950s the co-operative sector accounted for 30 per cent of the UK grocery market - today that figure is a less mighty 9 per cent. Despite that, there are still 2,200 Co-op food stores in the UK with the biggest geographical spread of any retailer. Impressive. Deciding it couldn't compete with the 'big four' supermarkets, the Group focused on creating smaller stores in local communities with an emphasis on ethical products. It has been the UK's biggest supermarket supporter of Fairtrade since 1992 and sells the widest range of Fairtrade products of any retailer.


This flagship of frozen food was founded on the sly by two Woolworth's employees, who chucked £30 each into the kitty to cover one month's rent on their Shropshire store, in 1970. They were rumbled and lost their jobs at Woolies, but national demand for frozen foods meant the plucky twosome never looked back. Within 10 years they had opened 75 shops but weren't content to rest on their frozen laurels till they had taken over their Southern rivals, Bejam, and expanded their empire to a massive 465 stores. After a slump in 2001, the company bounced back with innovations like free home delivery on spends over £25, rounding prices to the nearest 25p and hiring Kerry Katona for a touch of celebrity.

Counter service

The birth of Aldi dates back to 1913 when Frau Albrecht opened a small store in Essen, Germany but it was the market matriarch's two sons who would grow her humble shop into a global empire. In 1946, the brothers took over their mother's store and by 1950 owned a chain of 13 shops offering food at a 3 per cent discount, making it easier for economically minded Germans to pocket the pfennigs. The siblings continued to grow the business until 1960, when a dispute over whether to sell cigarettes at the till saw them split their 300 store company. International expansion boomed after the fall of the iron curtain and the rest of the world was finally able to buy discount food, German style. There are now 8,000 stores spanning the whole wide world, with a new Aldi store opening in Britain every week.

What happened to those supermarkets of our youth


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