IT was 70 years ago today that what became recognised as the UK’s first supermarket opened in London near the site of what became the 2012 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

A branch of the London Cooperative Society in Manor Park, now part of the London Borough of Newham but then part of East Ham, Essex, opened its doors to customers with the promise of shopping with a difference.

For in a move that would change the face of retailing in the UK, the Manor Park store allowed customers to serve themselves.

Though it was not branded a supermarket at the time — Premier Supermarkets, a branch of Express Dairies, claimed that first in 1951 — the Manor Park co-op brought in the changes that we now know as supermarket shopping.

PRIOR to 1948, shops would consist of shelves full of items and shoppers would go to the counter and produce a list which the shop assistants fetched — watch the Two Ronnies’ classic Four Candles sketch on Youtube and you’ll see what it was like.

Handling the goods was forbidden and there were numerous cases of people being prosecuted for doing so.

Yet the London Cooperative Society threw all that up in the air. They were borrowing an American concept, of course, one that dated from 1916 when Clarence Saunders created the self-service concept in his store in Memphis, Tennessee, which rejoiced in the name Piggly Wiggly. Saunders and his company would go on to originate supermarket staples such as shopping trolleys — they were called carts back then — checkouts, and individual price marking. There are 600 Piggly Wiggly stores in the USA even now.

The success of the idea which proved attractive to shoppers from the outset, principally because it encouraged choice and lowered prices, was such that other stores soon copied Piggly Wiggly and by the late 1930s, self-service supermarkets were practically standard in the USA.

A Co-op store in Romford tried out a sort of self-service in 1942, but wartime rationing soon put paid to it. By 1948, rationing was still widespread but there were sufficient goods, particularly groceries, which made the idea worth trying again.

ON day one at Manor Park, shoppers — nearly all women — queued outside and were apparently stunned by the range of choice and the fact they could help themselves.

The London Co-op quietly opened or changed other branches and by 1951, the opposition had to react to their success. Premier opened that first supermarket, swiftly followed by Marks & Spencer in Wood Green and the first Fine Fare supermarket. Within ten years of that first self-service store, supermarkets were opening all over Britain.

SCOTLAND already had its own retailing giants such as the many Co-operative societies and Galbraiths who had pioneered the other essential element of modern supermarkets — they had their ‘own brand’ goods.

Galbraiths was bought by Home & Colonial Stores in 1954 for a seven figure sum, and was later sold to Argyll Group, the creation of the Scottish entrepreneur James Gulliver who had been chief executive of Fine Fare and who would make Argyll the fourth largest supermarket operator in the UK, better known these days as Safeway. Coopers Fine Fare and Wm Low were our best known supermarket chains, the latter bought by Tesco in 1994 for £257m.

LIKE every other part of the UK, Scotland has been overrun by the big four — Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. Discounters Aldi and Lidl have grown their market share in recent years and the former is now the fifth biggest chain.

Some would say the supermarket chains have too much power, and sometimes they exercise that power in wrong ways. In one respect The National has recently been holding the biggest supermarkets in the country to account over their failure to properly market and promote Scottish food and drink in particular.

The growth of ‘Union Jackery’, as we call it, has infuriated our readers, and branding items as British when they are of Scottish origin will cost the big chains some of their profits.