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Home Delivery

Home delivery by Sainsbury's

Today many people get grocery shopping delivered to their front door, and Sainsbury’s has a long history of providing this service. For several decades in the twentieth century the company did not offer it, but further back in time home delivery vehicles were a familiar sight on roads in the areas Sainsbury’s served. This story will look at the first flourishing of Sainsbury’s home delivery service, how it disappeared, and its resurgence over the last few decades powered by the arrival of the internet.


The early days of home delivery

The very first Sainsbury’s shops were located in busy market streets which drew in large numbers of customers, so there was no need to provide a home delivery service. But things changed in 1882 with the opening of the London Road, Croydon branch. This marked the start of the company’s expansion out of central London into its outskirts, which were then much less built-up than they are today. The Croydon shop offered a wider range of products compared to the older branches, and the customer base was more prosperous and spread over a larger area. Home delivery soon became a key part of the success of this branch and similar new stores which followed a few years later.


No charge was made for delivery, but orders had to be placed in the shop at least half an hour before the required delivery time, of which there could be up to four available each day: 8.30 am, 11.30 am, 2.30 pm and 4.30 pm. The method of getting goods to customers’ homes depended on how far away from the branch they lived. If it was only a mile or two, a ‘delivery lad’ would get there on a bicycle or tricycle, but longer trips were made by ‘roundsmen’ in horse-drawn vans. Before setting off, delivery staff had to ensure their vehicles were spotlessly clean and pack up the customers’ orders with great care and skill. Strong-smelling cheeses had to be kept away from other items, and eggs were simply placed in paper bags, rather than the cartons we have today – preventing these from breaking must have been quite tricky!


Until the First World War bicycle tyres were solid rubber, making journeys on cobbled streets an uncomfortable experience. Sainsbury’s spent considerable sums on maintaining and repairing its fleet of bikes and trikes and their attached baskets so they could deal with the demands of the job. When delivery staff arrived at their destination they were under strict orders: ‘Roundsmen and Delivery Lads must deliver all parcels to the customer's house and on no account surrender goods in the street or at the gate of the house.’ Carrying extra goods to make further sales was also not allowed. A 1914 instruction book states that ‘Every roundsman is provided with price lists and the quality of goods is known to all buyers, therefore the hawking business is unnecessary.’ With large distances to cover time could not be wasted. Although the work of the delivery lads could be difficult, Sainsbury’s recognised their importance, and if they worked hard many could expect to be promoted to roundsman or take on other roles in the company. ‘Harry's Story’, an illustrated audio book available on this website, depicts a typical day in the life of a delivery lad in 1912. 


Growth and decline

The First World War posed many challenges to Sainsbury’s operations and home delivery was one of the areas severely impacted. Many delivery staff left the company to serve their country, and horses could be requisitioned for use by the Army, so customers were encouraged to carry smaller parcels themselves. In some areas home delivery was stopped altogether. The company still strove to take goods to the homes of elderly or ill customers, however.


After the war ended deliveries from the branches resumed their earlier importance. Sainsbury’s continued its expansion into suburban areas, and few customers at this time had their own cars so they could not easily transport large loads themselves. Branch staff were instructed that ‘when a customer is moving out of the neighbourhood and to another district where we are represented, SSD [shop services department] should be advised, and they in turn will arrange for her (or him) to be waited on by the local branch’. Sainsbury’s regularly produced new price lists for the roundsmen to distribute which advertised the ever-increasing choice of foods available to order.


In 1915 Sainsbury’s purchased its first motorised van, a Model T Ford. It was quickly recognised as the future of delivery vehicles, and by 1928 the company had a 37 Fords and 80 Morris vans to transport goods from the shops. These were painted a handsome dark red with a cream roof and gold lettering spelling out ‘J. Sainsbury’ and the address of the relevant branch. Some vans also advertised important products like butter or Blue Kaddy Tea.

By knowing the addresses and purchasing habits of customers who received deliveries Sainsbury’s was able to advertise its wares in a more targeted way. It sent out free samples of butter to encourage those who were not buying it already to do so. The scale of customer data held by the company became so large that a mechanised punched card system was required at head office to manage it all. By the late 1930s the database comprised over 250,000 names and addresses, and Marylebone branch alone had over 4,600 customers on its books.


But the more customers it delivered to, the more Sainsbury’s realised that the service was becoming uneconomic. The company faced a difficult decision: should it continue to provide a free home delivery service, even if it meant raising the price of goods? With great reluctance it was decided in 1934 to introduce a charge of sixpence for small orders. Robert Sainsbury, a grandson of the company’s founders, stated that ‘we simply cannot continue to supply the finest goods at such low prices and to give in addition a “family” service without some change in our system. It would have been quite easy for us to have made a slight alteration in our Price List, but we have always tried to maintain the same prices in every district.’ Free delivery was still available for orders over 15 shillings or one pound, depending on the area. The minimum order by the late 1930s was two shillings, although managers still could waive this rule in cases of ‘sickness in a customer's house or other special circumstances’. The Second World War, like the First, reduced delivery capacity. After the war Sainsbury’s directors took a keen interest in the way American supermarkets operated, and ‘the virtual absence of credit and delivery services’ on the other side of the Atlantic was noted in a 1952 issue of staff magazine ‘JS Journal’. Home delivery was finally discontinued by the company in 1955.


The return of home delivery

A number of factors lessened the impact of the end of home delivery. By the 1960s many customers used their own cars to transport shopping home themselves. Strong paper bags with handles, available in the new self-service stores, made carrying bulky purchases much easier. Increasing ownership of fridges, and later on freezers, meant that customers no longer needed to stock up on fresh food so frequently. It was not until the 1990s that Sainsbury’s once again delivered goods directly to homes, in the form of ‘Wine Direct’. This was a scheme which enabled customers to order a wide selection of Sainsbury’s wines by phone or post. In 1995 Sainsbury’s became the first supermarket to sell products online, as Wine Direct became accessible on the internet through ‘BarclaySquare’, ‘the UK’s first virtual shopping mall’.


The success of Wine Direct led Sainsbury’s to consider if there was once more a market for home delivery of other products. To gauge interest it agreed in late 1995 to supply groceries to ‘Supermarket Direct’, an independent company which took orders by phone or fax and delivered to households in central and south west London. Lifestyles had become busier and getting shopping delivered quickly and easily was an attractive option to many. Retailers were also realising that the development of the World Wide Web could transform the way customers placed their orders. By 1998 10,500 people were visiting Sainsbury’s website every week, and although it was then seen primarily as a ‘reference point’ for recipes and other kinds of information, the company already envisaged ‘an electronic shop on the Internet which will offer a full store grocery range’. Sainsbury’s initially focused its attention on an ‘Order & Collect’ service, enabling customers to pick up pre-ordered goods in stores, but it decided to add home delivery to its offer as well due to popular demand and successful trials in Watford and Solihull. In 1998 Sainsbury’s became the first food retailer to offer a ‘home shopping’ service covering the UK’s largest cities when it launched the pilot of ‘Orderline’. Four million customers living within a 20-minute drive of 32 large stores were able to order goods by phone, fax or internet. They could then collect their items in-store or have them delivered to their door. The system was explained in a detailed video:


Getting started with Orderline seems to have been rather more complicated than we might expect nowadays! As the video demonstrates, customers first had to visit a store to create their own ‘catalogue’ of products they might want to order. Following some initial instructions from a ‘shopping adviser’, they would go round the store with a handheld scanner. It was important to scan all sizes of a product which might be required, and include things only bought infrequently ‘like herbs or shoe polish’. Once Orderline was all set up, however, it was not so different to today’s home delivery process. Specially trained ‘personal shoppers’ who selected products in stores and decided on substitutions had an important role. Deliveries would arrive within a two hour window, and the choice of slots was fairly wide, although less than it is today. As it had done a century earlier, Sainsbury’s stressed that goods would arrive in optimum condition, thanks now to temperature controlled vehicles as well as careful packing. A £5 charge was made for home delivery.


In 1999 Sainsbury’s announced plans for the first Orderline fulfilment centre. Located in west London, it would be ‘the largest food-picking centre in the UK’ and enable the company to serve 10,000 customers each week, operating alongside the existing in-store order picking method. It was also decided that Orderline would temporarily be discontinued outside the M25 as it was more economically viable to focus initially on customers in London. Other supermarkets were also moving into the home shopping market, and Sainsbury’s hoped to gain an advantage by offering a wider range of products than its rivals. At the same time as it was introducing Orderline, the company also experimented with a more novel form of home delivery in ‘pedicabs’ – pedal-operated rickshaws that transported shopping and customers home at the same time! Despite the environmental benefits (pedicab drivers would also ‘transport any items for recycling back to the store at no extra cost to the customer’) this scheme did not become widespread like Sainsbury’s tricycles had once been.


Online ordering becomes established

By the year 2000 it was becoming clear that the future of remote shopping was on the internet. At the start of 1999 online orders accounted for just 15 per cent of Orderline’s business, but a year later this had increased to 45 per cent. Sainsbury’s therefore decided to relaunch it ‘with a new, more customer-friendly web site and more personal name – Sainsbury’s to You’. The new name now emphasised that it was a home delivery service, and delivery vans were a key part of the rebranding – they provided ‘mobile advertising’, as the old branch delivery vehicles had done decades earlier. The website began to include features we expect today, such as storing details of previous orders and displaying information about products which previously could only be read on the packaging in stores. There was also no longer any need to visit a store and set up a list of regularly purchased products. Within a few months of the relaunch the service had expanded outside the M25 once more, and Sainsbury’s was able to deliver to half the households in the country.


‘Sainsbury’s to You’ quickly proved popular. The website continued to be improved and in the first few months of 2002 orders increased by 100 per cent. By this time ‘70 per cent of UK households’ could book deliveries. Just like a century earlier, home delivery was an important way for Sainsbury’s to serve customers over a wider area than the immediate surroundings of its stores and reassert its reputation for excellent service. The ‘major impact’ that delivery drivers had was recognised in 2004, when 300 of them transferred from distribution company Ryder and became Sainsbury’s colleagues. For many customers they were now the only staff member they came into regular direct contact with.


In 2005 the ‘Sainsbury’s to You’ name was phased out as the company moved its online operations under ‘one, simple umbrella’ – But the importance of home delivery, now known as ‘Groceries Online’, continued as the word spread and more customers started using the internet. By February 2006 45,000 deliveries were being made in a single week. Customer demand soon prompted Sainsbury’s to expand into delivering a wide range of non-food items, including ones too big to sell in stores – ‘everything from sheds to beds’ and much more besides. In the 12 months to October 2013 online grocery sales passed £1 billion. Weekly deliveries had grown to 190,000, over 1,600 vans were on the road, and 96 per cent of the UK was covered. Three years later Sainsbury’s acquired Home Retail Group plc, the owner of Argos and Habitat, and it was clear that both food and non-food delivery would continue to be an important part of Sainsbury’s business for the foreseeable future.


If you have memories relating to home delivery in days gone by that you would like to share please consider recording them on our Memories page.