Bringing Self-Service To Vancouver & The Drive, 1918-1926


The Great War of 1914-1918 brought with it many changes to Canadian society. This brief essay looks at one such change; the move from full service grocers to the concept of self-service.

During the war, and for some time thereafter, most retail businesses on the Drive were still stores rather than shops, with apron-clad clerks ready to take a list of goods from a shopper. The clerks would then take the required items from the store’s store and put together a package for the customer, most often for delivery. The shopper was not expected, nor probably wanted, to do anything other than supply the list. As a result, a great deal of basic shopping was handled on the telephone. Delivery of everything from groceries to dry goods, from fresh fish on ice to hot fish & chips, was free and almost immediate, often on horse-drawn carts or in the baskets of boys’ bicycles. Full service of this kind was both expected and given.i

Self-service, on the other hand, involves a significant psychological shift. It is a “transfer of initiative from salesman to buyer, as customers could [now] contemplate the product and form a judgment in their own time, without being hurried by the talkative real-life salesman.” Referring to supermarkets, one design expert wrote that the “public today are being educated … to walk from department to department, to inspect and handle the goods, and to make up their own minds.” The shop must now be seen as not just storing goods but as being used “for showing and suggesting.” Shopping became “an occasion for taking anything you liked the look of.” To achieve this, wrote another expert, the “properly arranged store … has no unnecessary barriers. It lets women and merchandise meet.” These changes in outlook were happening just as the standard package was coming into its own as both an advertising and delivery mechanism. The combination led to the impulse buy. As one packaging guru wrote at the time, “it offers the dealer an incentive to place the package within easy sight and reach of the customer, saves the time of the sales clerk, and incites impulse purchases.”ii

In October 1916, the Vancouver Daily World published a report on business in Washington State. One part of that report noted:

“A rather good idea to reduce the cost of foodstuffs is the ‘groceteria.’ in which groceries are sold on the same plan as food in a cafeteria. One firm is operating thirteen branches in Seattle, and I am informed they take in $5,000 a month. The saving is about 15 per cent to the customer, saved by doing away with delivery, bookkeeping, and clerk hire.”iii

 In an editorial entitled The Art of Selling, the Province traced the history of the system to the cafeterias of California “at a time when there was a shortage of hired help”. A later report described the system as follows:

“The groceteria is a store where the lady may help herself, where she can place all her selections in a basket that has been provided at the door for the purpose. She can then take the articles to a clerk at a checking counter, who will render her a bill, and then, if she so desires, she may have them wrapped up. After that, the store’s responsibility ceases, for the lady must take the goods home herself.”iv

The groceteria concept was introduced to Vancouver by Victoria grocer H.O. Kirkham in February 1918. He opened four retail stores in the City, including one at 1678 Commercial Drive and another at 622 Victoria Drive. They also operated a wholesale department which ran ads in an attempt to attract other grocers to their system. v

By April they had expanded to five stores, and their advertizing to the general public was clear about the benefits to the shopper:

In August Kirkham’s took over the grocery and produce departments at City Market, promising to improve the distribution of fruits and vegetables from the Fraser Valley, leasing “a considerable space” behind the fish and meat markets for the purpose. They offered cash sales to farmers rather than the commission system operated by a previous

A release in the Woman’s Page of the Vancouver Daily World that reads as if it is from the Dominion Ministry of Food was all for the new system:

“The sensible buyer does her shopping first-hand — and not over the telephone. She goes out with her basket and picks what she wants. She encourages the cash and carry system and believes in the groceteria.”vii

The success of Kirkham’s system soon persuaded Charles Woodward to change the format of his own grocery and produce department, opening their groceteria in January 1919.

“The quick lunch system as applied to grocery sales, has been applied … in the groceteria that was opened in their grocery department in the basement this morning. This latest departure is operated on the cash and carry system entirely … The department is operated … on the serve yourself principle. Goods already packed in convenient form are ranged around the shelves or on the tables with the prices labelled.”viii

The experiment was such as a success that, by the end of the year, Woodward’s had expanded their entire store onto Cordova partly in order to double the size of the groceteria.ix

This new fangled sales system was not to everyone’s liking. Eaton’s set up a groceteria in October of 1919 but, a year later, grocery manager George T. Wolfe said he had seen “no noticeable difference” in the amount of business done. And Hudson’s Bay was adamantly opposed, noting in their ads that cheap foods and self-service might be good for those “who prefer quantity to quality” but that didn’t include HBC’s clientele.x

However, the naysayers were clearly in the minority. February 1921 saw Spencer’s Department store follow the lead of Woodward’s and Eaton’s, announcing its new opening with full page ads:xi

And it wasn’t just grocery stores that got into the act. When Yale Shoe Store on W. Hastings had a clear out sale, they were pleased to announce that “the entire stock [is] arranged on the self service sales plan so that you can see every bargain lot.” They were soon copied by McRobbie’s Shoes on Granville. xii

Meanwhile, Kirkham’s had quickly expanded to sixteen stores which were sold in September 1921 to a company run by G.W. Markle from Winnipeg who was described as “an authority on modern sales methods.” By August 1924 they had grown to thirty stores in Vancouver alone.xiii

As mentioned earlier, one of Kirkham’s first self-service stores was at 1678 Commercial, opening in 1918. They moved in 1923 to 1417 Commercial where they shared space with Ray’s Market. During early 1929, Kirkham’s was absorbed into the Safeway chain which advertized self-service as “the Safeway way.”

Another local store that professed to be the innovator of self-service was Walkey’s at 1616 Commercial, operated by Lemond C. Walkey from 1923 to 1926. In a puff piece written for the Vancouver Sun in 1925 he claimed to be the pioneer of self-service in Grandview, ignoring the fact that Kirkham’s had beaten him by several years.xiv

As time went on, self-service became the norm and we hardly think of any other way of shopping these days. More changes were to come: Supermarkets were developed in the early 1930s; Sylvan Goldman in Oklahoma City invented the wheeled shopping cart in 1937; and the Piggly-Wiggly chain designed their stores to create a specific path for shoppers to follow (think IKEA today). But these were all just elaborations of the key innovation — and that was self-service.

i   Or perhaps the delivery service was more exotic. Joan Proctor has a wonderful description of “the blue pajama clad fish man, straw coolee hat on his head who came to our neighborhood on Fridays, a pole hung heavy with fish over his loping shoulders as the catch of the day dangled pungently for the housewife’s approval” in “Growing Up In Grandview” (n.p.,2005), p.115

ii   This section is greatly informed by Rachel Bowlby, “Carried Away” (Columbia, NY, 2000). “Public being educated”: Ellis E. Somake and Rolf Hellberg, “Shops and Stores Today: Their Design, Planning and Organization” (Batsfords, London, 1956), p.111 quoted in Bowlby 2000, p.38. “Another expert”: Carl W. Dipman, “The Modern Grocery Store” (Butterwick, NY, 1935), p.11, quoted in Bowlby 2000, p.145. “Packaging guru”: D.E.A. Charlton, “The Art of Packaging” (Studio, London, 1938), p.91 quoted in Bowlby 2000, p.178

iii  Vancouver Daily World 1916 Oct 10, p.12.

iv  Province 1919 May 29, p.6; Vancouver Daily World 1918 Feb 6, p.12

v  Vancouver Daily World 1918 Feb 6, p.12

vi  Sun 1918 Aug 18, p.7

vii  Vancouver Daily World 1918 Aug 6, p.6

viii  Vancouver Daily World 1919 Jan 18, p.11

ix  Vancouver Daily World 1919 Sep 20, p.1

x  Sun 1920 Oct 4, p.11; 1921 Apr 9, p.8

xi  Province 1921 Feb 10, p,12; 11, p.24

xii  Province 1921 May 25, p.10; Oct 6, p.5

xiii  Vancouver Daily World 1921 Sep 16, p.2; Province 1924 Aug 18, p.2

xiv  Sun 1925 April 3, p.12; June 5, p. 14; July 3, p.10; Aug 7, p.10

2 thoughts on “Bringing Self-Service To Vancouver & The Drive, 1918-1926

  1. Michael Kluckner has pointed out quite correctly that we have almost returned to the pre-self-service days with online shopping and delivery.


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