A new shopping experience

The food shopping experience of the 1940s was very different from that of today.

Customer making a purchase in a grocery shop during the Second World War. Interior view of a grocer’s shop with goods piled high on and behind the counter. The grocer offers a product to a woman customer. Egg substitutes and mixtures requiring no eggs are much in evidence.

Housewives were used to having the butcher, baker and fishmonger deliver to the door. They would take receipt of their goods and then put in their order for the next week. Milk was delivered by the morning milkman, arriving with his horse-drawn or electric milk float. So it only left a short walk or bus ride to the local greengrocer’s shop for their seasonal fruit and vegetables.

Women were comfortable in the knowledge that the salesmen knew what they wanted. They often stopped for a chat or a cup of tea and the delivery schedule meant plenty of work for young boys who would set out on their bicycles with a basket on the front. School-leaving age back then was fourteen. Too young for many occupations, but to be a butcher’s or baker’s delivery boy was ideal. Here is one recollection:

After some enquiries my mother found me a job with a local butcher who needed a delivery boy and so I went to work for [ …] the weekly wage of twelve shillings and six pence (62.5p).


But on January 12, 1948, when the UK’s first self-service supermarket opened, it revolutionised shopping for ever. The ideas were modelled on the American shopping experience and not to the taste of all British shoppers, with many cautious about the whole idea.The first shop to offer this new way of shopping was the Co-op in Manor Park, East London. Other Co-op shops had tried this kind of experiment a few years earlier – but it was only in 1948 that the full scale self-service conversion was achieved. Tesco had tried the same thing back in 1947, but it hadn’t quite worked as the equipment was not quite right.

But gradually the concept spread from shop to shop, with the 1950s seeing the opening of supermarkets across the country – but more of that in later posts!

Published by Isabella Muir

Isabella is passionate about exploring family life from the 1930s through to the 1960s and beyond. She has published six Sussex Crime mystery novels set during the 1960s and 1970s, a standalone novel dealing with the child migrant policy of the 1950s and 60s, several novellas set during the Second World War, and two short story collections. All available in paperback from your local bookshops, or online as ebooks. Her novels are also available as audiobooks, and have been translated into Italian.

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