It was 150 years ago this week that John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury set up the first Sainsbury’s at 173 Drury Lane in London.

In those days, the UK was reaping the benefits of the industrial revolution, London was at the heart of the British Empire and the retail sector comprised mainly market stalls and small stores.

John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury

Founders John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury

It is quite an achievement for a business to celebrate 150 years, so it feels like an important time to reflect on how Sainsbury’s has evolved to adapt to the changing nature of retail and how we will prepare for the future.

Over the past 150 years, the company has lived through six monarchs, 26 prime ministers and two world wars, but I am only the eleventh chief executive.

That stability has enabled Sainsbury’s to remain consistent to the values championed by our founders.

John James and Mary Ann wanted to set up a store that would offer people safe food, so they focused on cleanliness and hygiene at a time when this wasn’t a priority for many other retailers.

“Quality perfect, prices lower” was their slogan and it remains the ethos of the business today.

Responding to customers

The first Sainsbury’s sold only three products: butter, milk and eggs.

However, they soon realised customers wanted a much wider range of products and to be able to visit stores across the country.

So Sainsbury’s adapted to meet the changing social and economic circumstances taking place across the UK.

Within 30 years, we opened 98 new branches and celebrated the opening of the 100th store in 1903.

During the First World War we employed the first female sales assistants to help keep the business running while men went to war.

Croydon self service 1950

The first self-service store opened in Croydon in 1950

In the Second World War, many of our stores were bombed and one even had to open temporarily in a church hall.

In 1950, we converted the London Road, Croydon, shop into our first self-service store.

I believe this approach to our business helped Sainsbury’s through the economic peaks and troughs of the 20th century.

But it was only by looking ahead to future retail trends that the business was able to maintain its place in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Sainsbury’s was the first major grocery retailer to open a self-service store, the first to sell organic food and the first to launch a food range for people with allergies.

We were also ahead of the curve when it came to introducing same-day and one-hour grocery delivery, as well as opening the UK’s first till-free store last month.

Future of food

As shopping habits continue to change, we need to continue to adapt and evolve the business to get ahead of them.

Currently that means a real focus on value to compete with the discounters and continuing to invest in technology to meet the growth of online shopping. Almost 20% of our business is online and that will grow considerably over the next few years.

Over the next 150 years, we need to look hard at how we continue to create food with dwindling natural resources.

I don’t believe our founders could have imagined what our world is like now, so it is hard to imagine what our food world will look like in 150 years.

But we can still look ahead.

Our food trends report last week showed that in five years’ time, we could be eating insect carbonara and drinking algae-milk lattes as we incorporate more sustainable forms of protein into our diets.

It also showed that in 30 years’ time, we could be eating jellyfish for dinner given its richness in vitamins and nutrients.

sainsbury's till free

Sainsbury’s opened the UK’s first till-free grocery store this year

Back in the present, we wanted to celebrate our 150th birthday with our colleagues first and foremost. Many of them will visit our 150 Experience this week, which is a replica of our original store close to where we started on Drury Lane.

Sainsbury’s has always played an important role in communities and, to mark our birthday, we’re giving all of our colleagues a day to help in their local communities so that our celebration creates a real community legacy across the UK.

I believe Sainsbury’s has succeeded by remaining true to our values, adapting to changing circumstances and looking ahead to prepare for future trends.

Those values have stood us in good stead over the past 150 years and I am confident they will continue to guide us as we navigate the next 150.