Supermarkets are one of the ultimate expressions of modernism. The township of Camden was not isolated from these global forces of consumerism that originated in the USA. The Camden community was bombarded daily with American cultural influences through movies, motor cars, drive-ins, motels, TV, and radio. Now consumerism was expressed by the appearance of self-service retailing and the development of the supermarket.
Retailing in Camden took its lead from England. At the village level, the market stall turned into a high-street shop. All goods were kept behind the counter, customers were served by male shop assistants, and goods were delivered to the customer’s home.
Shopping in Camden was a rather dull affair by all accounts. The methods of retailing in Camden had changed little from the 19th century.
Camden women fronted up to the counter and handed their list of needs to the male shop assistant who filled the order for her. There were several choices from those owned by the Whitemans, the Cliftons, the Furners and others.
The winds of change were about to descend on the Camden shopping experience. The old-fashioned general stores were about to find out what real competition with a global presence meant in a small country town.
According to Ann Satterthwaite’s Going Shopping, self-service was the industrialisation of retailing and the chain store. These stores featured cash and carry, no delivery and shelving displaying pre-packaged goods. In the USA there were an array of stores from Niffy Jiffy, Help Selfy, Handy Andy to Clarence Saunders Piggly Wiggly stores in Memphis in 1916, a type of cafeteria retailing. Piggly Wiggly was allegedly the first self-serve outlet for groceries. Self-service retailing emerged after the American civil war in response to labour shortages. For others like Edison’s Samaritan Market, it was an attempt to make shopping more efficient.
The first time that groceries were sold in Australia using self-service in occurred in Brisbane in 1923. The Brisbane Courier reported that the first exclusive cash-and-carry grocery store started in Brisbane under the name Brisbane Cash and Carry Store. The proprietor Mr CA Fraser had opened three stores by 1927. The press report maintained that
The system was practically a novelty in Brisbane, but some idea of what success can be obtained through an honest endeavour to give self-service to the public in a courteous and efficient manner can be gauged by [its success].
The news report suggests that lower costs were obtained by the customer paying in cash, thus eliminating store credit. The customer serving ‘herself, and eliminating the necessity of salesman effects further savings’. It was claimed that the three stores served over a half a million people each year and the stores were ‘a model of neatness, cleanliness and efficiency’.
The first cash and carry store to open in Camden occurred in 1933 and was owned by Mr Joe B Roberts at 110 Argyle Street. The Camden News stated that Roberts had obtained the premises previously occupied by Mr Green next door to Mr Fred Boardman’s butchery. The report stated that ‘the shop has been specially fitted for Mr Roberts, who [would] personally conduct the store’. By 1936 Mr Roberts’s store was adjacent to Mr Green’s Drapery store. His Christmas special was a free beach towel with five purchases from the advertisement in the Camden News.
A recent article on JStor on sex and the supermarket by researchers Tracey Deutsch and Adam Mack claims that supermarkets were places where gender and sexuality collided for American women. Supermarkets were one of the mid-20th century’s most important suburban sites for the important weekly ritual of shopping for the modern family. The supermarket was both aspirational and practical. In a weekly ritual, the modern housewife could get lost is a sea of idealised dreams created by marketing gurus around an overwhelming splash of colour, perfectly merchandised products and an endless supply of brands that promised to make life easier for the modern housewife.
In the USA, a parallel development occurred in the kitchen. There was the development of refrigerators, the gas stove and products started to be promoted in cans. As the US economy developed fewer women went into domestic service, and wealthier middle-class women started shopping in these new supermarkets.
The design of the supermarket was based on making them feminised spaces based on the latest psychological theories. Sex appeal made its way into shopping. Supermarkets were brighter, more colourful, cleaner, and sexier than the dingy general stores. The new aesthetic meant these spaces were made to titillate and fascinate women. Supermarkets were clean and efficient, with modern fluorescent lighting and carefully selected colours.
One of the earliest feminist authors, Betty Friedan wrote about how women were shackled through shopping to their domesticity in 1963 in her book The Feminine Mystique.
Supermarkets are sites where gender roles are reinforced and where women’s sexuality is ‘contained and re-directed’ to consumption.
In 1941 press reports from Los Angeles stated that the hype surrounding the opening of the latest supermarkets ranked with the opening of the latest blockbuster Hollywood movies. The Southern Californian housewife went on the hunt for the latest bargains. The supermarkets operated with huge carparks and large neon signs, with some staying open 24 hours, 7 days a week. They traded under names like Bi-Best Market, Sel-Rite Market, The Stop-and-Save, Thriftmart, and Wundermart.
In the post-war years, self-service retailing gained momentum in the Sydney area. Kings Cross grocer Mr Jack Greathead was the owner of a small self-serve store, and in 1950 cut the price of his butter and triggered a price war. Chain stores joined the price war. Mr FC Burnard, the grocery buyer for David Jones, predicted after a visit to the USA that self-service and other retailing innovations would soon be implemented in Australia. He was particularly impressed with the use of trolley carts and pre-packaged hosiery and frozen goods.
In Camden, Woolworths came to town in 1963. Woolworths opened the first stand-alone self-service store with a clean modern design that made shopping more efficient. With modern lighting, wide isles, bright colours and lots of appealing merchandise, with nationally advertised, well-known brands. Some brands were American, re-enforcing the international and cosmopolitan nature of the new shopping experience.
The new Woolworths store at 166-172 Argyle Street Camden was light and airy compared to the local general stores up the road, which appeared old-fashioned and stodgy. The new supermarket encouraged local women to experience the thrill and titillation of shopping. Slick brand marketing created dreams in the minds of the shoppers. Shoppers were encouraged to immerse themselves in the dream. Shopping became sexy. Shopping stimulated the sense with bright colours, in-store music and excitement of the new experience. Shopping became exciting. Shopping was sensual as much as it was practical.
The Woolworths supermarket consolidated several lots in Argyle Street occupied by W Ward, the butcher, Monica Ray and Beaton and Wylie.
Coles opened a stand-alone grocery store in Camden in 1979, and Woolworths moved into its current store on Oxley Street in 1986.
Updated 13 May 2023. Originally posted on 8 January 2018.
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