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This little piggy went to market. April 2, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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There were no Piggly Wigglies in Nashville when our friend Ben was growing up there. But every so often, our friend Ben would encounter one of the eccentrically-named grocery stores on family trips farther South. This was one of the infant Ben’s biggest thrills, and I would squeal (if you’ll forgive the expression) with delight upon encountering a store with such an absurd, outrageous name. Piggly Wiggly?! Oh, no, no.

To my undying shame, our friend Ben sort of forgot about Piggly Wiggly after moving to Pennsylvania, which has extremely ludicrous store names of its own. (WaWa, anyone?) But I was reminded of the beloved childhood chain last summer when Silence and I joined the Hays clan on Emerald Isle (that’s off the southern coast of North Carolina, as opposed to THE Emerald Isle). Before arriving at the wonderful beach cottage, we stopped at a grocery store for necessities like (ahem) whole milk and (gulp) Diet Coke. (For our friend Ben’s views on whole milk, see my earlier post, “The death of moderation.”) And the grocery store happened to be a Piggly Wiggly. Piggly Wiggly!!!

By coincidence, Silence had chosen a library book for vacation reading called Waltzing at the Piggly Wiggly. Suddenly, Piggly Wigglies were back in our friend Ben’s consciousness.

Like our friend Ben, unless you’ve grown up with a Piggly Wiggly and never thought to question the name, you must by now be wondering what on earth the creator of the grocery-store chain was thinking of. Our friend Ben was determined to find the origins of this absurdly wonderful name.

Fortunately, my good friend Google was, as usual, happy to try to help me out. And this led our friend Ben to a really amazing story, but not to the answer I sought. Here’s the incredible story of the Piggly Wiggly chain. But to appreciate the magnitude of the founder’s achievement, you have to understand the leap that he made.

So first, I want you to picture a Western movie—any Western movie—and think about the obligatory scene of Maw and Paw heading in to the nearest town’s general store. They go up to the counter with their year’s profits—a silver dollar or two—and hand their hard-earned money to the clerk. They tell him how much flour, cloth, sugar, and so on they want, and he goes off to the shelves, returning with bolts and bins and burlap bags, weighing and measuring and cutting their goods into the appropriate quantities. The scene usually ends with the clerk handing the kids some peppermint sticks or a few pieces of hard candy as a free treat.

Fast-forward to the twentieth century. Guess what? When your great- or great-great- or whatever grandparents went to the store, anywhere in America, that’s exactly what happened. They gave their list to the clerk and the clerk gave them the goods. Until 1916, when Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis, Tennessee. As it happens, Saunders was a visionary, and his particular mercantile vision changed the way grocery shopping was done forevermore. In his Piggly Wiggly, you see, customers went into the store aisles, where merchandise was grouped by type, and they chose their own groceries, and then they took them to the cashiers at the front of the store and paid for them. Ring a bell?

Not only did Saunders’s store concept revolutionize the grocery industry, it also brought about the primacy of the brand. There were brands before, of course—various snake oils and hair tonics spring to mind—but when people shopped for groceries, they asked for such-and-such quantity of oats, not Quaker Oats. Now that they were choosing their own oats, however, the brand name and packaging suddenly mattered. Brand merchandising assumed a pride of place that it retains to this day. And it’s all because of Piggly Wiggly.

Okay, that’s the story—the first successful grocery store chain, based on self-service, creating brand awareness, and thanks to one man’s marketing vision and genius. But it’s still not the answer. Why, oh why did Clarence Saunders call his visionary grocery stores Piggly Wiggly?!! Sheesh.

Turns out, we’ll never know. Saunders refused to disclose the origin of the chain’s name, saying only that he wanted it to provoke people’s curiosity. He died in 1953 and took the answer to his grave. The internet yields a little speculation, but nothing that satisfies our friend Ben. The name remains a mystery.

In these times of universal dieting, when even Shoney’s has replaced its “Big Boy” icon with a cuddly bear, it’s astounding to our friend Ben that there are any Piggly Wiggly stores left at all. It’s as though Nancy and Sluggo, Henry, Buster Brown, Orphan Annie, Pogo, and the rest of the Depression-era cartoons were still holding their own in the world of Dilbert and Doonesbury. Our friend Ben recognizes that tastes change, and the market—be it in cartoons or grocery stores—changes with the popular taste. (And okay, I love Dilbert. Or at least Dogbert and the Pointy-Haired Boss.) But lordy lordy, I hope, how I hope, that the Piggly Wiggly stores can stay the course. I know that, every time I’m down South, I’ll be looking for them.