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New patent museum details the birth of the supermarket

WASHINGTON—Next time you're stuck in a checkout line, you might want to blame Clarence Saunders.

Saunders, a grocery wholesaler in Memphis, Tenn., invented and patented what he called "Self-Serving Stores" in 1917. He made millions on what came to be called supermarkets, then went from riches to rags and halfway back again on the 20th century's most influential retail concept.

Washington's newest museum, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Museum in nearby Alexandria, Va., tells Saunders' story, along with those of other people who reinvented American life.

Until Saunders came along, Americans bought their wares by telling clerks what they wanted. Clerks filled their orders from stocks kept behind counters.

Saunders' patent no. 1,242,872 changed all that. It called for "distributing the merchandise of a store in such a manner that goods may be selected and taken by the customers themselves while making a circuitous path through the store."

Translation: Give the customers shopping baskets and make them pick up their own goods. Cut the staff down to a few cashiers and use the savings to charge less.

Saunders' invention, summarized in a six-page patent application, made him rich in a hurry. He called his stores Piggly Wiggly. When he was asked later why he chose such an odd name, he replied: "So people will ask that very question." By 1923, he'd opened 1,268 Piggly Wigglys, mainly in the South.

In a display of wealth, Saunders commissioned a 38,000-square-foot pink marble mansion in Memphis complete with an indoor pool and shooting range.

He never got to live there. In the early ཐs, Saunders thought stockbrokers were selling Piggly Wiggly stock short and decided to buy back his own company.

"He went to New York City with a suitcase full of cash. The estimates of how much money he took with him range from 1 to 10 million dollars," said Dan Hope, spokesman for the Pink Palace Museum, which now occupies the mansion.

Stock exchange officials concluded that Saunders was trying to corner Piggly Wiggly's stock. He was forced to sell almost all of it, went bankrupt and lost control of the company.

In the ཚs, he designed and built an entirely mechanized, clerk-free store, which he called Keedoozle. The machinery proved cranky and costly, however, and Keedoozle failed. Only now are food retailers moving toward Keedoozle-like clerk-free supermarkets with automated checkouts.

The patent office's museum in Alexandria, Va., which opened last month, features Saunders' story in an exhibit titled "A Day in My Life." The museum's Web site is www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ahrpa/opa/museum. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

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To learn more about Saunders, go to www.pigglywiggly.com and click on "About Us."

To learn more about his mansion, now the Pink Palace Museum, visit www.memphismuseums.org/mansion.htm. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORE-INVENTION

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