The Piggly Wiggly story, here, as recounted in Wikipedia, dates back to 1916, where Clarence Saunders set up the first store in Memphis, Tennessee (of Elvis Presley and John Grisham/”The Firm”) fame. A year later, Saunders received a patent for what was captioned “Self-Service Stores” (no. 1,242,872), here. In a word, Saunders created the system by which the retail grocery business is still conducted. As implemented in this store, customers entered through a turnstile. There were four aisles, containing approximately 600 items for sale, organized by product categories. Customers physically selected the items they wished to purchase before proceeding to the cashier.
Piggly Wiggly leveraged this concept of “self-service” to bring about the following changes in the retail grocery business:
Provide checkout stands;It is instructive to consider the first claim (out of four) of the Saunders patent--
Mark a price on each individual item;
Provide shopping carts;
Feature full lines of nationally advertised brands;
Employing refrigerated cases to preserve produce for a longer period of time;
Provide uniforms for its employees;
Standardize the location of departments across stores;
Design fixtures and equipment for use in the stores;
Use independent grocers as franchisees to operate stores.
“1. An apparatus for the vending of merchandise having a series of merchandising holders or display cabinets arranged parallel with each other and with spaces between them to form aisles and with the ends of alternate cabinets spaced from the wall or partition in the store, whereby a circuitous path is provided through which the customer must pass from the entrance to the exit, substantially as set forth.”Here was a revolutionary method of doing business in the retail grocery field. Indeed, it has been claimed that Piggly Wiggly served as one of the inspirations for the implementation by Toyota of its just-in-time inventory strategy, the Toyota Production System. Taken from another angle, the self-service system created by Saunders paved the way to placing packaging and brand recognition at the forefront of retail product sales. All of this led to a peak of 2,660 stores in 1932, even in the teeth of the Great Depression. Moreover, the name and mark had already become iconic in large swathes of the country.
Yet the colossus that Saunders built slipped out of his hands. It turns out that Saunders lost a large amount of money by attempting to run up the share price of the company in response to Wall Street speculators, who had bet on a decline in the price of the shares. Saunders fell into bankruptcy and was ultimately forced to turn over his assets to the banks that had funded his leveraged position. As a result, the company was broken down and it sold to a number of local grocery chains, including such continuing household names as Kroger and Safeway.
Kat readers should not underestimate the iconic nature of the Piggly Wiggly mark. This Kat remembers as a teenager, about the time that the Beatles first hit American shores, taking a 60-hour bus ride from Phoenix, Arizona to New York City. Besides the seedy Greyhound bus stations, which invariably all seemed to be located in the worst neighbourhood in each city, he has only other vivid memory of that trip. As the bus traveled on and on along the legendary U.S. Route 66, here, he passed one, then another and yet another supermarket, all bearing the unforgettable trade mark—Piggly Wiggly, accompanied by the figure of a salubrious smiling swine.
So what do we make of the Piggly Wiggly story from the IP perspective? After all, the company was a true innovator in the way that the retail grocery business is still conducted; moreover, the company took pains to patent some of its key innovation in the area. As Wikipedia reports,‘[t]he success of Piggly Wiggly was phenomenal, so much so that other independent and chain grocery stores changed to self-service in the 1920’s and 1030’s.” And yet, there is no indication that Saunders sought to enforce the patent against his competitors. Indeed, it appears that certain competitors sought to imitate the self-service system by tweaking their operations and obtaining patents of their own, here. The patent system seems to have provided Saunders with little competitive advantage, even before the foolhardy stock market escapade.
As for the trade mark, Piggly Wiggly plus design remains iconic in the regions in which it operates. But even this most
distinctive (and in some places, beloved) trade mark cannot overcome the challenge of competing in larger urban centers against better-financed rivals. Still, the survival of the mark, in the face of bankruptcies, unimpeded imitation and multiple owners, is itself worthy of note. Almost a century after Saunders reinvented the retail grocery business, and 50 years since this Kat was taken by the charm of Piggly Wiggly brand along the back-roads of America, the brand is still of value. That it is so at all is no small accomplishment.
The lyrics of "Route 66", here