Lost from the Supermarket: A Trolley Load of Anachronisms

Several things which 21st century children will never see or hear in their local superstores

Take a trip to a 21st century superstore, anywhere in the United Kingdom. Today’s stores are sprawling; some of which architecturally nondescript. Commonly, a great number have petrol stations and generous amounts of free parking.

In later years, concerns about the size of superstores saw the major chains invest in ‘Metro’ or ‘Express’ type stores. Smaller stores, often the size of convenience stores or 1970s supermarkets would see the Tescos and Asdas of this world dominate our neighbourhoods. Sometimes at the expense of public houses.

Whereas self-scanning tills are common today, barcode scanning at tills was in its infancy only 30 years ago. We were years away from loyalty cards, and talk of debit cards replacing cheques was unheard of. For some people, their biggest supermarket was a third of, or half the floorspace of present equivalents.

Before we begin our journey, it is time to head to the bus stop, shove our ClipperCard in the machine and sit upstairs in a Leyland Atlantean. Front seat on the left or right hand side of course.

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1. People personally handing you a basket

From the early days of self-service shopping, a member of staff would be stood at the entrance. He or she would keep an eye on the door and hand you a basket.

2. Turnstiles at the entrance

We have the Disability Discrimination Act to thank for this measure. The use of turnstiles at the entrance assumed that most shoppers were able to walk to the store without difficulty. This of course disregarded people with wheelchairs, mobility aids such as walking frames and crutches, and perambulators.

3. Trolley gates

Next to the turnstile, he or she would be expected to push their supermarket trolley through a separate entrance. This often had three perpendicular plastic flaps which pivoted to a near horizontal position when s/he pushed their trolley through the gate. People with wheelchairs and buggies may have been expected to negotiate through the trolley gate. ‘Ouch!’ for the person being pushed through the trolley gate.

4. Walk-in refrigerators

If your experience of 1980s grocery shopping entailed a trip to Kwik Save, a lot of their stores had walk-in refrigerators. Often situated midway through the store, their walk-in refrigerators were entered through clear plastic curtains. Milk would be seen on one side whereas butter would be opposite. In a summer’s day a Godsend. During winter, less so.

5. The store manager’s office’s window

Pretty much a rare beast anywhere apart from 1970s era supermarkets. At the back of the store, the store manager’s office (often on the first floor) would have a view of the store itself. This would often be seen on the last aisle which s/he is likely to use before reaching the checkouts. Ashton’s Home Bargains store is one example, having been purpose-built as a Tesco store (in 1967) before becoming Victor Value and Kwik Save.

6. Separate concessions for certain departments

With the exception of, possibly, Shoprite’s stores on the Isle of Man, the idea of separate parts of the store being leased to concessions is probably dead. Kwik Save used to have separate concessions for its butchery (Colemans) and greengrocery departments. Some of which were owned or part-owned by the store chain with individual profit centres. This was true with Liquorsave in Kwik Save and Bumper’s Burger Bar in Mainstop’s stores.

7. Supermarket music

Before somebody shoots me down on this subject, there was a time when superstore chains never played anything by the original artistes. Long before a trip to the fish counter meant Billy Ocean or Muddy Waters, early superstore music was inoffensive aural wallpaper. Sometimes, it would be instrumental muzak, more like the stuff you heard at two in the morning on Piccadilly Radio’s Nightbeat. Or it could be passable soundalikes of popular artistes (see also Woolworth’s Embassy and Chevron releases).

One purveyor of background music was Rediffusion (of London’s weekday ITV programming and cable television fame). Their Reditune subsidiary had a recording studios and offices in Jersey. Though used as background music in factories, its use in supermarkets would be used from the mid-1960s onwards. Some of its musicians would be gainfully employed in producing TV and film soundtracks such as Alan Hawkshaw. A taster of the early supermarket sounds is captured for posterity on ‘Gypsy Creams and Ginger Nuts – The Redifunk of Rediffusion‘.

8. Deli counter tickets

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed as if effective queuing systems could be governed by numbered tickets. In many a DHSS office or delicatessen counter in Britain, clients would take a numbered ticket to wait their turn. S/he would pick a ticket (for instance, ’64’) and wait for ’64’ to come up on a digital counter. In the 1980s, Sainsbury’s, Gateway, Fine Fare and Presto supermarket chains seem to have favoured this approach.

9. Checkout staff in overalls

Before shirts and trousers became de rigeur in superstore chains, the average store employee’s outfit was functional rather than fashionable. Fine Fare staff wore orange overalls. For a time, Morrisons employees wore a mainly blue overall with a bit of white and pinstripe check at the top (almost like a mid-1980s Everton shirt). Today’s uniforms have more sartorial elegance, though still the first thing you wish to change out of after work.

10. Counter tops over the checkout aisle

Again, thanks to the DDA, this anachronism has disappeared from our stores. Some supermarkets, before conveyor belts were the norm at checkouts, had a counter top over the checkout aisle. Our shopper would squeeze through a narrow part of the aisle and place their items on the counter top though not before s/he moves their trolley or basket. The cashier would collect the customer’s items, scan them, and place them in his or her trolley or basket. Our shopper would also use the counter top to write their cheque.

The United Norwest Co-op’s stores such as their Mossley branch, had counter tops in the aisles. Though great for children and trolleys to crawl under, probably a pain in the posterior at busy times.

11. Trading stamps

Before loyalty cards, there was two ways of retaining customer loyalty. One was the Cooperative Societies’ dividend schemes. Another, influenced by American shopping habits was trading stamps. Tesco’s early success was based on Green Shield stamps. Shoppers would fill in endless books and use the stamps to pay for household goods. These were redeemed at Green Shield Gift Centres, some of which became Argos stores.

As well as Green Shield, rivals included Sperry and Hutchinson (S&H Pink Stamps, as used by Fine Fare) and King Korn. Supermarkets would have Double and Treble Stamp days. In 1977, Tesco ceased offering Green Shield stamps, plumping for lower prices. Green Shield stamps were discontinued in 1983, though had a brief revival between 1987 and 1991. Today, store chains still offer trading stamps, though as part of in-store savings schemes, which could be redeemed against groceries. The real successor to Green Shield stamps is the Nectar loyalty card.

12. Separate points for wines and spirits

In modern day stores, alcoholic beverages is often part of the main superstore itself. A smaller number still have dedicated Wines and Spirits departments though at one time, the Wines and Spirits section was a perfunctory cabin. Using the Staveleigh Way Kwik Save in Ashton-under-Lyne as my example, the booze section was opposite the tills and ran the length of the windows. This made purchasing alcohol in the superstore a seedy pursuit compared with a trip to the off-licence, or a visit to the off-sales counter of your local pub.

In some stores, the booze section was a similar size to the cigarette kiosk. Or smaller. Ken Sorby’s mini market on Concord Way, Dukinfield, had an off-licence section no bigger than a walk-in wardrobe.

13. Cardboard boxes for carting your goods home

Before internet shopping came of age, or sometime before the car’s rise in popularity, some superstore chains left a small amount of cardboard boxes in the customers’ packing area. Instead of carting several bags, you could reuse one of a random selection of used boxes and carry them to your car.

14. Non-automatic doors

When you visit your local superstore, you may be accustomed to the joys of automatic doors. Only recently (well, 30 years to be precise), a trip to your local Asda, Fine Fare or Presto meant… opening the entrance doors yourself – oh, the hardship! Even so, each store’s corporate identity was extended to its door handles. From the early 1970s, Co-op stores had the late-1960s clover leaf emblem on their door handles. The spooning ‘f’s of the Fine Fare logo would form part of their door handles.

If you wonder why superstore doors are automatic, the answer is all around you. All 500 or so parking spaces and numerous trolley bays.

15. Car servicing bays and car washes

For almost as long as the UK’s short yet meteoric history of superstores and hypermarkets, drivers have turned to their favoured store for petrol. Some chains have a little mini market within the petrol filling station (Morrisons and Tesco for example), whereas some dispense with manned forecourts (Asda).

At Asda, you could not only fill your car up with four star petrol. Some branches had tyre and servicing bays. Ashton’s first branch of Asda on Langham Street had such a facility, complete with Crypton tuning and the like. The Fine Fare hypermarket in Hyde had a car wash next to the Elf petrol station near The Sportsman public house. Oldham’s Co-op Shopping Giant had a Shell petrol station under the bridge leading to its rooftop car park.

16. In-store ice cream parlours

Perhaps we may be more health conscious these days, but an in-store ice cream parlour seemed to have been a la mode in the late 1970s. We return to our old friend, the Co-op Shopping Giant store on King Street, Oldham. Its southern entrance, adjacent to the Bank Top Tavern had a little ice cream kiosk. It had all the flavours and the E numbers you could possibly think of. Perhaps Joe Royle’s reference to Boundary Park as ‘Ice Station Zebra’ may have stymied sales, hence its closure in early 1985 or thereabouts.

17. Newspaper dispensers

30 years ago, buying a newspaper from anywhere besides your local newsagent or a branch of WHSmith and Son seemed an alien concept. Some superstores had coin-slot newspaper dispensers. Hyde’s Fine Fare hypermarket had one by the main entrance. It was a striking yellow and black one, used for the Manchester Evening News.

18. Late shopping hours meant 8pm

For our last point, there was a time when superstore chains used to finish early. My local Morrisons used to close at 6pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, and 7pm on Saturdays. Late shopping meant an 8pm closure on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. There was no Sunday opening till 1994.

Today, we take for granted the fact we can shop at at 10pm on a Monday, or pop in to the store for a ready meal at 3am. The latter is great for shift workers.

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Before I go…

Are there any other aspects of 1970s and 1980s supermarket shopping you wish to share? Feel free to elaborate and add to the above. Before you do, I shall leave you with this little clip:

S.V., 20 October 2014.

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7 thoughts on “Lost from the Supermarket: A Trolley Load of Anachronisms

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  1. But people born in 21st century can “Information” booths and may be swing gates instead of turnstiles at the entrances. Some hypermarkets still use paid trolleys which give easy loan for children or socially unprotected people: they can get free coins, returning left trolleys to “trolleys’ parking”. Recently after shopping I saw the result of such actions. I left a trolley with a coin inside near another “coinless” trolley and went to WC. When I returned in about 5 minutes “coinless” trolley still stayed at its place, but useful trolley were taken.

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    1. Hi J,

      In most UK stores, they are often seen as ‘front of house’ greeters though this varies from store chain and by superstore layout. I have seen this in practice at Asda though not Tesco and Morrisons; separate Customer Service counters seem to be the norm, usually next to the cigarette counter.

      Regarding coin-slot trolleys, Morrisons have done away with them whereas Tesco has never had them in most stores. One exception is their Stalybridge branch whereby the number of trolleys thrown in the neighbouring canal has seen the introduction of coin-slots.

      An interesting point on how the trolley with the coin was taken instead of the one with the store’s own token.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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  2. Hello Stuart: “prices marked on goods” before the adoption of the bar code; and the convenience of a “cheque printer” are two further items for your excellent list.

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    1. Hi Ben,

      I forgot about the cheque printer though I do remember its cousin, which was the manual credit card swiper. It is true that you don’t see the price stickers on goods any more. The price sticker was always part and parcel of the store chain’s corporate image.

      There’s a fellow on Flickr.com by the name of Blitzkrieg Bob (no prizes for guessing his favourite punk group!) who has posted a number of price stickers from UK store chains. Here’s his work:
      https://www.flickr.com/groups/vintagepricestickers/pool/52058809@N03/

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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  3. Great post Stuart and it’s all true. I remember going to Scan in Walkden probably about 1975 and it seemed enormous and a new Tesco in Irlam advertised on the telly as the biggest in the land! Not sure if it’s still there. I guess it’s the one on Woodrow Way. Looks pretty ordinary nowadays. I think they’ve gone as big as they can now and that many will become “dark stores” in the future.

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    1. Hi Mark,

      This seems like the branch that is today’s Tesco Extra, part of the retail park element of The Ellesmere Centre. Back in 1975, the shopping centre was known as St. Ouen Parade in reference to Walkden’s twin town. The centre opened in 1966, therefore I assume the superstore was of similar vintage.

      The original Tesco Hypermarket in Irlam has gone and in its place, is a bog standard Tesco Extra store, 90º away from the previous position whilst on the same site off Woodrow Way. Its predecessor was built in 1976. Even so, there is no shortage of pictorial resources on the subject!

      From Wikimedia, here are the plans of the original store:

      There’s three pictures on this website, photographed by Brian Duff from the Daily Express (Great Ancoats Street office) via the Science and Society Picture Library, available for purchase:

      http://www.ssplprints.com/image/124515/duff-brian-check-outs-at-tesco-hypermarket-february-1976

      http://www.ssplprints.com/image/124516/duff-brian-trolleys-at-tesco-hypermarket-february-1976

      http://www.ssplprints.com/image/124770/duff-brian-green-shield-stamp-sign-tesco-hypermarket-may-1977

      From the Badge Collectors’ Circle, a badge tying in with the release of Walt Disney’s ‘One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing’:
      http://www.badgecollectorscircle.co.uk/badges/view/986

      And finally, from http://www.m44.co.uk, a picture of the old store in glorious Instamaticovision:
      http://www.m44.co.uk/gallery.php?Category=3&GalleryID=63

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

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      1. When the Tesco Hypermarket opened in Irlam (Manchester) in around 1976 I worked for Green Shield Stamps and we did the promotion for the store, including a visit from a mock-up dinosaur which was on the back of an old seddon lorry and I was driving a transit following behind as an escort as the lorry drove very slowly all the way up the motorways from the film studios in London. It was from One of our dinosaurs is missing.

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