Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Self-checkouts feel like a product of the disconnected Internet age, but Clarence Saunders pushed them nearly 80 years ago.
Who enjoys struggling with microscopic barcodes and unmarked bits of produce in the self-checkout lane? Nobody? Too bad; self-automated modules are here to stay. With a few exceptions, virtually every new grocery store in America is asking consumers to do a bit of work at the end of their trip, reducing face-to-face interaction with employees and, theoretically, overhead costs. (Though interestingly, supermarket labor spending has actually been on the rise for the last couple of decades.)
Self-checkout feels like a product of the disconnected Internet age, but in fact, the concept is nearly 80 years old. Next time you openly swear at a fritzing scanner, direct the sentiment at Clarence Saunders. Born 1881 to a Virginia tobacco farmer, Saunders spent a lifetime grasping for heights of shopping automation even greater than we know today, then falling and bootstrapping himself back up again and again.
A teenaged Saunders got his start as a salesman for a wholesale grocer, where he watched owners of small stores struggle with high overhead costs. The turn-of-the-century grocery store was labor-intensive, where clerks took customers' orders and collected and packaged their items off the shelves, while also advertising new products and prices.
This was an expensive model, and apparently bothersome for customers. "Don't you need any coffee this morning, Ms. Jones? We have a special blend that we're recommending. And here is a new kind of potato meal," was how the Boston Globe Magazine mocked the old grocer's "obsequious clerks" in 1918.
Saunders aimed to fix the problems he'd observed when he opened his first store, Piggly Wiggly, in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the first modern supermarket: Passing through a turnstile at the entrance, customers served themselves as they milled through aisles, using a small basket to collect pre-packaged, price-marked items off of shelves. An illustration in Saunders' patent application for a "self-serving store" is a remarkably similar to the layout of supermarkets today.
"In the Piggly Wiggly store there are no clerks at all," the Globe wrote. "The things are there, within easy access, in full view and plainly marked with the price .... And as for prices, why of course they are cheaper. The buyer pays for the things he buys, not for the salaries of clerks and delivery wagons and gasoline and all the other expenses of the average store."
This pioneering model was a runaway success. By 1922, Saunders was operating 1,200 of these self-service stores in 40 states, with an estimated $100 million in worth.
But success was short-lived. A series of stock-control hijinx forced Saunders to sell the company at a loss. By 1924 he was penniless, despite the continued success of Piggly Wiggly (which extends to this day), as well as countless other chains that copied the clean-operating, customer-pleasing model.
Yet Saunders forged on. Four years later, he was operating a string of self-service stores known as "Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores," a tongue-in-cheek prod at his former loss of proprietorship. The Sole Owner brand did extremely well at first, raising Saunders back to millionaire status. But the company was forced to close in 1930, due to the start of the Depression.
Still Saunders dreamed an American capitalist dream: A self-service, low-price grocery store, with more costs cut, more customers served, and fewer employees payrolled. His vision fit the era's scrimp-and-save mentality, but it was also well ahead of its time. Bootstrapping again, Saunders opened yet another chain, Keedoozle, the all-automated supermarket. "It's my final plunge," Saunders told Life Magazine some years after its 1937 opening.
Here, items were kept in separate glass cases so as to be easily seen and never handled. Entering customers received an aluminum "key" with a roll of ticker tape attached. They shopped the product windows as they pleased, slipping their key into slots in the displays and pressing buttons that punched Morse code-like data about their desired products. At the checkout, a shopper handed her key to the clerk, who simultaneously rung up the receipt and transmitted the key's record to a backroom. There, workers bundled orders and sent them out to customers via conveyer belt. “It can’t miss. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever had," Saunders told Time magazine.
Saunders thought the design would allow a single employee to handle five customers per minute, translating into low costs for customers and great profits for him. Over the course of a decade, he experimented with the system in three different locations, struggling to placate buggy mechanics and shoppers hesitant to buy produce and meat they were unable to physically inspect. The wiring also struggled to keep up with demand during peak shopping hours. Customer orders were routinely mixed up, and the conveyor belt was too slow. Imperfect yet prescient, Keedoozle shuttered in 1949.
The two-time millionaire Saunders died four years later, with a personal estate of just two thousand dollars—and, of course, plans for his next great store. Foodelectric would have eliminated the need for cashiers entirely using a primitive computer.
Foodelectric never opened, at least not in Saunders' time. It would be nearly 40 years before the first modern self-checkout lane opened at a Price Chopper in New York. You know how that story goes—though undoubtedly, we've not reached peak self-automation yet. When the Internet of Things connects every physical item in the store to a network, Saunders' dream of a cashier-free experience could be reality. “People have said when checkout is working really well, it will feel like stealing,” Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, told the National Retail Federation last May. “You grab a pair of shoes and you just walk out.”
Were Saunders around, I suspect he'd put an emphasis on working really well. A century of tinkering later, shopping for food ain't seamless yet.