For me it all began when one of my MBA retailing students showed me an advertisement from the 1933 Times and challenged me, as a Professor of Retail Studies, to tell him who Sanders Bros were, given that they were mentioned in the same breath as well-known retail lessees such as Woolworth, Boots, The Post Office, Marks and Spencer, Dolcis, Maypole and Montague Burton.
I had no clue, but was then intrigued when he went on to point out that in the 1930s Sanders were bigger than either Sainsbury or Tesco, and yes they were in the food retail business.
Neil Tyler was no ordinary MBA student (our retail MBA is focused on top managers in retail and ancillary businesses) and he knew full well that I would have no ready answer, and that the standard retail books about the time did not mention Sanders Bros. But what he was really interested in was whether I thought there was the potential to recover the memory and the footprints of this company, despite the fact he had confirmed that there was no extant archive after liquidation in the 1950s.
The last 6 or so years have involved the steady pursuit of these traces and tracks.
So who were Sanders Bros?
Established in 1887, Sanders Bros. was the UK’s largest chain of corn, flour, seed and general produce merchants in the 1920s, trading from 154 branches in 1925 in London and the surrounding area and when floated publically, with a stock market value higher than Marks & Spencer. With more retail stores than Sainsbury or Tesco, Sanders Bros. was also a significant manufacturer and distributor of biscuits and grocery and a major importer of spices and rice. Taken over by a group of investors in the early 1950s, it was quickly liquidated and broken up and its records destroyed in the 1950s.
And why are they important?
Food retailing is a fascinating subject, made all the more personal by our everyday connection with it through local shops, markets, supermarkets and even the Internet. Food retailing and food use provide endless social insights into consumers and communities.
But in our modern world we sometimes forget that the retailing and the food we consumer is ever-changing. And we forget the social and economic realities of times past, and of businesses past.
Sanders Bros casts an intriguing light on this changing world. The story of this major business can be reconstructed using published and personal sources, including family memories, photos and advertisements. This allows the development of the unique and previously untold story of a national food retail chain in the pre-supermarket era, and the lessons taught by its rise and fall.
The story that Neil Tyler has painstakingly reconstructed of this forgotten retailer is both a personal and a commercial one, shining a light into unremembered yet important spaces.
Sanders Bros was a large and successful retailer, born in the late nineteenth century but still in the inter-war period a significant presence, especially in London and South-East England. Both a producer and a retailer, Sanders’ is a story of changing times and changing lives, not least in its wartime decline and post-war dissolution.
The story is both family and business history, as well as a caution about changing behaviours, places, businesses, opportunities and values. Using novel approaches and newly available sources, Neil Tyler has constructed a tour de force on the changing fortunes not only of one retailer, but also of many people, places and products. And there is still more that can be done and avenues to be fully explored.
Neil has pulled together some of the material that has been assembled over the last 6 or so years, into a book, just published by The History Press. The resulting volume is a fascinating glimpse into a past world, liberally illustrated with photographs and other memorabilia. It is an interesting and engaging volume, well put together by the author and the publisher. If you are interested in retail history then it is worth getting hold of.
From my point of view and from an academic perspective Sanders is the gift that will continue to give. Behind this over-arching volume is a mountain of detailed work, in some cases using unique techniques, to re-construct the story. We believe that what we have unveiled will be academically interesting and provide a valuable contribution to our understanding of aspects of retail change. Preparing this detailed work for academic journal publication is the next step, but in the meantime the book should whet the appetite.
Neil Tyler (2014) Sanders Bros: the rise and fall of a British grocery giant. The History Press. ISBN 9 780750 956215.
Available at: www.thehistorypress.co.uk/index.php/Sanders-bros.html
And if by any chance, anyone reading this has knowledge, information, photographs or simply memories of Sanders Bros, then please get in touch.