The Era of Self-Serve

In the early 1950’s there were many changes in the standard of living as society became more affluent and Australia developed as a nation with the economy on the move and almost full employment.

Apart from several major projects in the form of the Snowy Mountain Scheme and Warragamba Dam, there was new local car manufacturing gaining momentum, and this encouraged subsidiary industries to progress. There was a high degree of optimism and a feeling of stability throughout the nation.

Domestically people were able to afford a car, telephone and most importantly a refrigerator, replacing the old ice chest for the storage of food and thus changing the way shopping was done. No longer were items like butter, flour, sugar, tea, biscuits and milk bought in bulk weighed up by your grocer. All these products were now available prepacked by the suppliers, thus reducing the need for the grocer to serve the customer physically.

This led us immediately to follow the American concept of self-service merchandising with many smaller stores introducing free standing floor units [to become known as gondolas] and putting stock on open display. One of the first to go full self-service was the G&G Store at Hurstville in Sydney, but the fixtures were still made of fixed timber shelving.
A significant jolt to the established retail order was the quite rapid introduction into supermarkets of the products of previously stand alone stores such as butchers and green grocers. This was made possible by, and in conjunction with, the burgeoning commercial refrigeration industry and the introduction of pre-packaged goods.

Also at this point in time, the stripping and bracket method began its rise and with it came the first designs of module wall and floor fixturing. These were of great advantage to the retailer as shelf configurations could readily be changed without cost to suit seasonal changes or varying promotions, a practice which still applies in today’s marketing.

At first, the product ranges were very basic. However as demand grew and more focus on store layouts took place, there were many companies prepared to invest and develop a more sophisticated system. There was a concentrated move away from timber shelving to steel and then later to wire, thus creating a change in the type of companies now engaged in the fitout industry. The need for wire hand baskets, shopping trolleys and wire display aids gave birth to another lucrative industry.

Woolworths experimented with the new island floor fixture at the rear of a couple of Sydney stores, namely Dee Why and Crows Nest. It was not long before they had their first full self-service variety store at Beverly Hills in Sydney in October 1955, with the second in Carnegie in Melbourne the following year.

Retailers as a whole realised the many advantages of this self-serve/self-selection type of merchandising and were quick to adapt their layouts to accommodate this open selling method. This resulted in improved sales and enabled the rationalisation of staff numbers.

Womens and menswear stores, shoe shops, hardware stores, newsagencies, liquor stores and finally pharmacies all moved to similar types of layouts utilising open displays and a centralised cash wrap area. Most also used the module concept. Even the large department stores gradually gravitated towards this form of merchandising with great success.

Myer Melbourne was one of the first to trial slotted stripping and brackets when they applied it to some existing fixtures and set the pattern for the future.
The introduction of self-service initiated the most transformative era in retail as we know it, requiring some dramatic and fundamental changes, with more emphasis placed on store layouts as they adapted to the emerging merchandising trends.

Increasing affluence led to newly expanded product categories, and these were also not immune to self-service. Television came to Australia in time for the 1956 Olympics.
Many major retailers expanded their design and store layout departments, while the smaller traders sought outside help. Many would see this as the start of a specialised store planning sector, although many shopfitters still had staff that could offer this service to their clients.

Initially, existing fixtures such as tables and garment racks were modified and used in the new store configuration as a stop gap solution, but as retailers gained confidence whole new suites of fixtures and fittings were designed. Most of these utilised slotted aluminium and steel sections based on modular systems. This new style of fixtures inevitably required the shopfitting companies to make significant changes in their methods of manufacturing to embrace the use of the metal componentry. This continues today with added refinements.

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