Going Self-Service – a 70 year old revolution?

A few weeks ago a journalist rang and asked about the introduction of self-service retailing into the UK.  A particular question was about the way in which retailers converting to self-service in the 1940s and 1950s knew what to do and what principles they followed.  That made me think (yes, I know) and I half-remembered reading something a long time ago.  A rummage around and I came across the book I recalled – Going Self-Service? by Patrick Galvani and Arthur Arnell, dating from 1952 (that was not when I read it).

Self Service 3

As with such things, once found I can’t resist reading them again and this ‘practical guide to profitable self-service retailing’ is an interesting set of ideas that have endured and photos and tips on introducing self-service.  It is clearly a cheerleader for self-service. The authors were pioneers themselves and their confidence has of course been borne out.  But in re-reading the book (I last read it c1980) a number of other things struck me.  Some were issues that had always been in my mind but a couple were new.

The obvious element that comes through the book is the small scale of the stores involved.  It has always been the case that self-service in the UK began in small stores and helped energise the move to supermarkets and superstores, but the scale of the shops is strikingly small.  The UK photos in the book also stand in stark contrast to the UK and Canadian ones, where the scale of the stores is more apparent.

Self Service 4Self Service 2

The arguments for self-service are also well rehearsed and whilst targeted at the retailer also encompass the benefits for the consumer.  These also are well known and long-lasting and the benefits of being a first-mover are also extolled.  The perceived downside of self-service – shoplifting – (or pilfering as the book has it) – is tackled but the claims made that the social service support for the population will reduce the need to pilfer and that counter service has a higher rate of loss seem a little odd.

Galvani 1

Less obviously perhaps, on re-reading I was struck by the, with hindsight, clear need for a range of ancillary services to be developed at the same time.  The book ends with adverts for supplies of lighting, shelving, flooring, packaging, baskets, tills and check-out systems, price tickets, paper bags etc.  This is the paraphernalia of self-service that would not have needed to have been considered in the same way or to the same extent by traditional counter-service retailers.  I had not fully appreciated how the shift to self-service both required and assisted in the development of extensive ancillary industries.

Finally, and this is missed in the mists of time, the photos and the narrative point to the need, even as self-service is introduced, to maintain some counter service.  Rationing still existed at the time the book was published and so service counters were still needed to manage some products and the rationing system itself.  Another stark difference to the American examples.



It is interesting that many of the principles set out can be seen in the operation of modern stores.  The scale and the detail has changed but the similarities are there.  I was also taken by the opening sentences of chapter one:

“… the troubles facing a retailer have slowly increased.  Competition, staff problems, lower margins, higher wages, shrinkages, wastage, rising overheads ad various other difficulties have forced many a shopkeeper to close down and make others wonder whether or not it is worth while carrying on”. (P9)

The answer to these problems, according to the authors was self-service.  This of course ended up exacerbating competition and encouraging the development of new formats.  The same problems are with us today in grocery/retailing and seen in the stresses on the sector.  The ‘how to’ book on automated stores and intelligent automated reordering can only be around the corner.  The drivers and pressures seem very similar today.


Galvani P. and A. Arnell (1952) Going Self-Service?  A practical guide to profitable self-service retailing.  Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, London.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Consumer Change, Customer Service, Express Dairies, Food Retailing, Historic Shops, History, Retail Change, Retail History, Retail innovation, Retailers, Retailing, Self-checkout, Self-Service, Small Shops, Tesco, Uncategorized, USA and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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