Story: Food shops

Page 1. Grocers

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19th-century food stores

By the late 1840s many towns had grocers, butchers, bakers and greengrocers. Smaller towns would have a general store selling foodstuffs and just about everything else. In city suburbs food stores were often clustered in a shopping strip lining a main road, and typically included a grocer, butcher, baker, greengrocer and dairy.

Grocers in the early 1900s

By the early 1900s large grocers dominated in the cities. In Auckland H. M. Smeaton’s shop employed around 65 assistants. City groceries were downtown and featured mirrors, ornate fixtures, large bins and drawers. Some even operated their own bacon factories. There were separate biscuit and confectionery sections. Shop windows featured massive displays of goods. A weekly order system was offered, with free delivery and readily available credit.

In suburbs and peripheral areas of the cities, general stores and smaller grocers were standard.



New Plymouth grocer Ray Revell recalled an interesting customer in the 1950s:

‘We had an old lady across the road in the city council flats, she would come in and we used to watch her pick up a tin of St George marmalade and put it in her pocket, she had one of those big pocketed coats. When confronted with the problem the old lady denied that she had a tin of marmalade in her coat; we told her … we saw her take the marmalade. Her reply was today she pinched two cakes of soap not marmalade! We never saw her take the soap.’1


Grocers’ dress

The working attire of grocers and shop assistants was formal. They always wore a shirt and tie, with a white coat and a white apron. Starched collars were attached to shirts by studs so they could be removed for washing.

Inside the grocery shop

A set of scales sat on the counter for produce sold by weight. Many bulk products such as flour and sugar were not branded, and the quantity wanted was scooped out of bins by the grocer. Similarly, cheese was cut from large blocks.

Customers recited their orders, which were written down by the grocer. They waited on the chairs provided, while the grocer dashed about behind the counter, going up and down the ladder to retrieve items from shelves, delving into bins and sacks and scooping and weighing contents. Rolls of brown paper, string and newspaper were used to package items. Sawdust was often scattered on the floor to reduce breakages and to soak up spillages.


Customers, who were predominantly female, carried baskets made of woven cane. Housewives tended to shop every day, or at least every two or three days. While many grocers offered delivery services, women still enjoyed an outing. It was a chance to dress up, get out of the house, and talk to other shoppers and the shopkeeper.

Shopkeepers and customers often knew each other by name, and many shoppers held accounts at the store. When the account was paid, the customer’s child was often given a few sweets wrapped in a twist of brown paper. At Christmas some grocers gave regular customers a box of chocolates.

Delivery services

Until the 1950s many people had no access to cars, and refrigerators and deep freezers were only just becoming popular. Milk and bread were delivered daily to houses, and grocers and butchers also offered delivery services.

Many shops had their own delivery carts and, later, vans. It was impractical for housewives to carry a week’s worth of shopping. Many staple and heavier items were delivered, while smaller items could be carried home in the shopping basket.

Chain stores and associations

Self Help

While some grocers advertised themselves as being ‘self help’ this was a misnomer – the shopping experience was all about service. Self Help was also the name of a chain of cut-price grocery stores that arose in Wellington in the 1920s. It operated on a strict cash-and-carry basis (most grocers offered credit and delivery). By 1947 there were around 200 Self Help shops throughout the country. Self Help competed on price by bulk purchasing, and by cutting services such as wrapping goods. Advertising costs per shop were small and they had universal branding, with new, brightly painted shops and signs.

Cooperative chains

Other grocers banded together to form cooperative chains which, through their combined purchasing power, could get cheaper deals from wholesalers and manufacturers.

Stick with the bunch


Grocer George Allan opened a Four Square store in Auckland after returning from the Second World War. He recalled a sign in the Foodstuffs head office which summed up the cooperative structure of the grocery chain: ‘Remember the banana. When it leaves the bunch it gets skinned’.2


In 1922 a number of Wellington grocers formed a group in order to get better stock-buying arrangements. In 1929 they formed a company called United Buyers, which changed its name to Foodstuffs in 1931 – by which time 112 stores were members. The company established the Four Square branding for its outlets in 1924, and in the 1940s they adopted a uniform colour and design scheme throughout the country. Four Square had 1,000 stores by 1956.

Other grocers also banded together in associations such as Home Circle in Otago in 1957, and Southland A1 Stores in Invercargill in 1958. They were less rigid than the chain-store structure but still had some of the benefits, such as combined buying.

  1. Joseph S. Bolton, A company history of Foodstuffs (Wellington) Co-operative Society. Wellington: The Co-operative, 1997, p. 109. Back
  2. Richard Wolfe and Stephen Barnett. Classic Kiwiana: an essential guide to New Zealand popular culture. Auckland: Penguin, 2007, p. 66. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Food shops - Grocers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 1 Sep 2016