Clarence Saunders and the Memphis Origins of the Supermarket

Memphian Clarence Saunders might not be a household name, but the next time you or your loved ones “run to the supermarket” you can thank him. In the early twentieth century (around 1916, I believe) he invented the concept of the “self-service grocery store” when he opened the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis. The store featured such innovations as pre-measured packages of sugar and flour. The concept took off nicely, and Saunders began building a mansion for himself on Central Avenue that people nicknamed “The Pink Palace”. Unfortunately, Saunders sold the Piggly-Wiggly stores to others, and eventually went bankrupt. Later, he started a chain of Clarence Saunders grocery stores that he called “Sole Owner” stores to point out that while he might have sold the rights to the Piggly Wiggly name, he still had rights to his own name. When this building on Lamar in Glenview was recently renovated and painted, the Clarence Saunders sign here was revealed, and the building owners decided to restore it as well. Saunders tried one more daring concept around World War II when he created Keedoozle, an automated grocery store where customers would use keys to “unlock” items that would slide down chutes. Payment was by means of a vending-machine, and the customer received his goods in a box at the end of the process. This newfangled technology proved too confusing for Memphians, and the concept failed. The ornate Italianate mansion that Saunders lost in bankruptcy is today Memphis’ beloved Pink Palace Museum. 

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