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Street Talk

Grocery Store Is The Most Important Business In A Small Town

Rolling into the Valley late at night, coming from the south, the first real sign of a town and civilization in general is the big red illuminated head of Mr. Pig, the mascot and logo for Piggly Wiggly.  The fluorescent glow of Mr. Pig is a warm red of welcoming. It is the feng shui red door of Water Valley.

Last Sunday was the last day for Piggly Wiggly in Water Valley. People were in the parking lot taking picture of the Mr. Pig sign and the sign over the front entrance.

The grocery store is going to stay right there and the same family, the Larson family, and their co-workers who have been feeding us for years are staying. It is only a name change and different marketing method.

The Piggly Wiggly stores, now at 102 years old, started in Memphis in 1916. It was a new marketing concept when it started – a new way of doing things. Clarence Saunders started the first Pig with the idea that customers could self-shop. Prior to that, you would go to the store and somebody would fill your order. That seemed to him a waste of time and efficiency.

Saunders idea of self-shopping, plus the crazy name, saw the Pig grow from one store in 1916 to 1,200 stores in 29 states by 1922. Saunders’ idea really took off. But in a Wall Street stock gamble, driven by a hostile takeover as the company had gone public, he lost ownership of Piggly Wiggly in 1923.  The Pig kept going strong. By 1932 it was doing great with 2,660 stores, many independent franchises, in operation.

Much of what Saunders’ and Piggly Wiggly pioneered are now industry standards. Ideas like checkout stands, a price on every item in the store, using refrigerated cases to keep produce fresher longer, having employees in uniforms for cleaner, more sanitary food handling, and designing specific fixtures and equipment throughout the store. That’s all Pig innovations, others have since copied.

There are still some 530 Pigs in 17 states, mainly in the southeast. The concept of franchise independent grocers operating has been taking a hit. Wal-Mart certainly has been a game changer in that move by going into the grocery business. But as we’ve seen with the Wal-Mart Express concept, their commitment to small places is fickle. There was not enough profit in those communities for them so they left.

For hard working people like the Larsons and all the co-workers over the years, they know that the profit is thin and hours are long, the payroll big and the merchandise perishable. The grocery store is the most important business in a small town and a town with no grocery store means most people want to live elsewhere.

I’ll miss Mr. Pig. I’m glad the grocery is still locally owned, glad to see the owners working the floor, glad when I can ask for something special (my brand of coffee) and they stock it. Will the Cash Saver be as fun of a logo to have on a T-shirt? Probably not. Is it better to have a locally owned grocery store versus a corporate giant from far away? Without a doubt.

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