Nearly 70 years ago this month, in 1950, Sainsbury’s opened its first self-service supermarket.

It was part of a revolutionary moment in retail, setting a new direction not just in grocery but across the retail industry as it became the norm.

So seismic was the change that the grocer issued instruction sheets to shoppers at the Croydon store explaining how the “easy and quick” system worked.

“As you go in you are supplied with a special wire basket to collect your purchases as you go round”, consumers were advised. “As you go out, you pay and get a receipted bill, and your purchases are transferred to your own shopping basket.”

Sainsbury's instruction sheet (lewisham1955)

After what has been, for many retailers, a difficult trading period and when established businesses face disruption on all sides, the introduction of self-service back then is a timely reminder that retailers have frequently led the way in business change.

Sainsbury’s initiative also came amid troubled economic conditions.

While at the moment there are worries about the ongoing impact of the decision to quit the EU, the middle of the last century was the aftermath of war and a period of austerity.

“The move to self-service was daring, new and made business sense. Now, in 2018, retailers should seek ways in which they can be as fleet of foot as JS was all those years ago”

It was to be another four years before food rationing ended in the UK, bringing finally to an end more than a decade of restrictions.

As well as being convenient for shoppers, self-service enabled efficiencies by retailers.

In that way too it was a shift with contemporary resonance as retailers adapt to seemingly ever-increasing consumer demand for convenience while shopping in new ways – a change that has been catered for and driven by Amazon perhaps more than any other retailer.

The move to self-service was daring, new and made business sense. Now, in 2018, retailers should seek ways in which they can be as fleet of foot as JS was all those years ago.

One eye on the future

It’s tempting for store chiefs to throw their hands in the air in frustration, or bury their faces in their hands in despair as they strive to navigate turbulent times.

But focus on what will appeal to customers – knowing what they might want to buy in future as well as what their preferences are now, or how they might want to buy in future – has been a traditional retail strength.

“What might be as important in times to come as the introduction of self-service or the advent of ecommerce was in the past?”

What might be as important in times to come as the introduction of self-service or the advent of ecommerce was in the past?

While many retailers sensibly prioritise market share retention or growth at present, they need to keep one eye on the future so that they’re first off the blocks when the environment improves.

What they can’t do is bet the company on unproven ideas. They need to create the environments in which experimentation can take place while failures – which will likely be more common than transformative ideas – don’t derail the core business.

That’s why it makes sense to strike partnerships with some of the new digital businesses that are now central to everyday life.

But while trading conditions and changing consumption patterns may be challenging, they create exciting business openings too.

If Sainsbury’s was able to adopt a transformative new business model in an age of shortages and the hangover of global conflict, the best retailers will certainly be able to do the same today when new technology, disruptive as it may be, brings as many opportunities as it does threats.