Europe celebrates counter-culture as supermarkets mark half century

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The Independent Online

When Le Lion first opened its doors on to Place Flagey in Brussels 50 years ago, its first customers were a little confused. Accustomed to the attention of helpful assistants, they simply stood around waiting to be served. The shop managers were forced to leave sweets and other treats in the bottom of baskets to persuade customers to pick up the baskets and move towards the goods on the shelves.

Europe's first self-service supermarket had arrived, sparking a trend that was quickly to take hold across the Continent.

The model came from across the Atlantic, where supermarkets had been ousting more traditional forms of retail for more than 20 years. Most Americans had decided that the loss of personal service and greater effort by themselves was compensated for by the lower prices and more streamlined convenience of self-service shopping.

Supermarket selling methods were started by Michael Kullen, who opened the first supermarket the King Cullen Grocery Company in New York in 1930, under the dubious slogan "Pile it high, Sell it low". By sacking staff, he lowered prices, a cost-cutting tactic that underpinned later supermarkets.

The Delhaize family who founded Le Lion were forced to import everything, from trolleys to cash registers, from the US. But by the end of the decade, self-serve had caught on. An exhibition in Brussels which opened this month at the International Centre for Urbanism, Architecture and Environment charts the evolution of the supermarket around Europe. The gallery, across the road from Delhaize's 1957 shop, Supermarché d'Europe, looks at how the supermarket has influenced and reflected cultural, social and economic developments of the past 50 years.

While supermarkets and high art may not seem to be bedfellows, this exhibition has caught the attention of artists, sociologists, architects and historians. "The supermarket is the perfect mirror of a changing Continent, and this hasn't been looked at before," explains Christophe Pourtois, one of the organisers of the show. "The American supermarket came about following the economic crash of 1929 and, similarly in Europe, the first supermarkets came about in the post-war 1950s."

The pictures taken to commemorate the opening of Le Lion are testament to this hardship, with black-and-white images revealing the pinched faces of housewives in headscarves, wrapped up against the December cold. The prosperity that eventually followed provided good conditions for the supermarket to flourish, a process accelerated in the UK by agricultural subsidies and the liberalising of retail laws.

"What we think of now as the modern way of life was evolving in the 1950s, and the supermarket was a major part of that," said M. Pourtois. Billboards boasted of supermarkets in the same style as air travel, motor cars and high-rise property developments.

Family life was also changing, and shopping changed with it. The young consumers of the future played with toy supermarkets, as more of their mothers chose to go to work helped by well-marketed "one-stop shops", and the development of labour-saving devices that we now take for granted.

While the format of the supermarket might have been established in the Fifties, evolution did not stop, as a visit to a modern supermarket will confirm. Indeed, the plans and photographs of the Greenwich Millennium supermarket, run by Sainsbury's and on show in the exhibition, reveal as much about contemporary life as sepia shots do about the Fifties.

The British architecture firm Chetwoods approached Sainsbury's in the run-up to the Millennium to propose an ecologically friendly supermarket. Tying in with the construction of the nearby Dome, the project tapped into a shift towards green living in which people across Europe have tried to lessen the impact they have on the environment.

While the box-like discount supermarkets of the Eighties and Nineties blighted city centres and out-of-town sites alike, the Greenwich store heralded a more uplifting trend. Its undulating roof blends in with the mounds of earth that surround it (designed to help keep the in-store temperature constant) while the rainwater which runs off it is collected to provide water for plants inside. Natural light floods the sales floor, and solar and wind power are harnessed to fuel the shop's electric signs.

Such a shop and more like it are at the cutting edge of retail but, with their decreasing amounts of packaging, smaller premises and as much local food as possible, today's supermarkets are becoming increasingly similar to their pre-Fifties ancestors. It's a commonplace that fashion is cyclical perhaps that goes for supermarket trends too.