Clarence Saunders, the innovative founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, never really explained the inspiration for his chain’s name. When asked why he chose it, he answered, “So people will ask that very question.”
These days, the company with the silly name is known mostly for its role in Southern popular life and culture, since most of its stores operate in the South.
But when Saunders opened his first Piggly Wiggly at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis, Tenn., in 1916, he filled it with ideas that would revolutionize the grocery story and lead to the development of the modern supermarket.
These concepts included goods stacked in self-service aisles, shopping baskets, elaborate displays and checkout stands in the front of the stores, prices marked on each individual item and refrigerator cases for produce, all things we consider normal today. In 1916, they were considered unusual; shoppers at that time generally presented their lists to shopkeepers, who would then retrieve items for shoppers from the shelves.
Saunders’ chain took off like a rocket. By 1922, the chain had grown to 1,200 stores in 29 states. It had become such a desirable business property that Wall Street investors staged a raid on the company in 1923. Saunders battled them and lost. He eventually had to file for bankruptcy and give up all his interest in the chain.
Saunders continued to innovate with new chains, including the “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores” in 1928, the Keedoozle automated stores in 1948, and Foodelectric in the early 1950s, a concept on which he was still perfecting when he died on Oct. 14, 1953.
Though Saunders lost control of Piggly Wiggly in 1923, the company continued to expand at a rapid pace throughout out the U.S., not just in the South.
Franchise rights were sold for various area of the country. In Southern California, A.B. De Nault and L.H. Ellis acquired the rights to the name in 1918, starting up the Piggly Wiggly Western States Company with two stores.
The West Coast chain grew quickly. By the middle of 1927, its 150 stores – 40 of which had opened that year – were bringing in more than $1 million a month in revenue.
By 1928, there were more than 200 Piggly Wiggly outlets in Southern California, including several in the South Bay and Harbor Area.
The downtown Torrance location had opened at 1315 Sartori Street on Saturday, Nov. 13, 1926, “the latest addition to this illustrious family of over 2000” Piggly Wiggly stores nationwide, as the grand opening ad proudly stated.