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From cornershop to hypermarket

1950s and 1960s shoppers needed for research into Consumers and the Supermarket in Post War Britain

Post war Britain saw a transformation in the way people shopped for food: the counter service shop with attendant was gradually replaced by the self service store, which evolved into the supermarket.

The supermarket had a huge impact on shopping, revolutionising the layout of the shop and offering a dizzying array of new goods. But little is known about how consumers reacted to these new spaces. The Universities of Surrey and Exeter are carrying out a new research project to learn more about how the supermarket transformed everyday life in twentieth-century Britain and would like to hear from anyone who was a shopper in the 1950s and 1960s to find out their opinions about this.

The supermarket emerged in America in the early twentieth century, but arrived more slowly in Britain. The development of the supermarket in Britain was held back by the food rationing system imposed during the Second World War, which was not removed until 1954. Following the demise of rationing, there was a rapid growth in personal consumption in Britain in the 1950s. This contributed to the development of the supermarket. In 1950 around 50 supermarkets were in existence, increasing in number to 572 by 1961. By 1969 there were 3400 supermarkets in Great Britain.

The first self service stores did not resemble the vast hypermarkets we are familiar with today, but were recognisably new and modern stores. For the first time, customers could do all of their shopping under one roof. During the 50s and 60s the range of food products on sale in the supermarket expanded. Convenience goods such as pre-packaged cake mixes became increasingly common. Shelves were stacked with new and exotic imports including garlic, aubergines, spaghetti, pizza and new varieties of cheeses.

British shoppers did not switch to the supermarket overnight, but gradually transformed their behaviour. A contemporary survey, by Mass Observation, revealed that consumers had very different reactions to the supermarket. Some responded favourably, but others found the removal of counter service too impersonal. Women bore the burden of household food shopping, and it was assumed that they would be the main users of the supermarket. But we don’t know how men felt about the supermarket, as contemporary market research surveys did not interview them. Nor do the surveys reveal how class, ethnic group and geographical location influenced the first supermarket shoppers.

The Universities of Surrey and Exeter are working on a new research project, to find out how the coming of the supermarket changed the experiences of shoppers across Britain. The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes Project explores the reactions of shoppers from different geographical regions to the supermarket. The project will examine how both men and women saw the supermarket. The roles of social class and ethnicity will also be considered. The research project will include a nationwide survey, using questionnaires and interviews. If you would like to participate in the survey or find out more about the project, please contact Jane Hamlett at the University of Surrey on 01483 683109. The project can only work with your co-operation so if you were a shopper in the 1950s and 1960s please get in contact with us – we are keen to hear about your experiences.

Stuart Miller | alfa
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