TIME Culture

Keedoozle, We Hardly Knew Ye: Remembering America’s First Automated Grocery

In 1948, photographer Francis Miller went to Memphis, Tenn., in order to document Keedoozle -- the world's first fully automated grocery store.

In 1937, a Memphis, Tenn., grocer and innovator named Clarence Saunders introduced a bold new concept in shopping for food: History’s first fully automated grocery store. It was called Keedoozle. (See the explanation of the unusual moniker below.) In 1948, photographer Francis Miller traveled to Memphis in order to document the third incarnation of Saunders’s technological phenomenon.

TIME magazine, meanwhile, reported on the groundbreaking operation thusly:

Memphis had waited a long time for the Keedoozle, Clarence Saunders’ electrically operated grocery. He first announced it twelve years ago. Twice he had opened up, only to close when wires got crossed and customers got the wrong goods.

Last week, confident that he had ironed out his Keedoozle’s kinks, Saunders staged another grand opening. Customers thought it was worth waiting for. They liked the pinball-type lights that danced when they inserted the keys in the merchandise slots. Better still, they liked Saunders’ prices, 10% to 15% cheaper than competitors’.

Shopping at the Keedoozle is not as complicated as it sounds. Customers inspect the wares, each item in a separate glass-enclosed case, then insert a key in a slot under the items they wish to buy. Electric impulses cause perforations to be cut in ticker tape attached to the face of the keys. The customers take the tape to the cashier, who inserts it in a translator machine. That sets off more electric impulses which not only start the goods sliding down a conveyor belt, but at the same time add up the bill.

Keedoozle means “key does all.” It was coined by Saunders’ fertile brain—the same brain that thought up Piggly Wiggly. . . . Now a white-haired 67, Clarence Saunders is sure that he has hit the jackpot again. Keedoozle‘s lavor-saving, he says, will enable him to make [more than 7 percent] on his turnover without adding more than a 3¢ markup to the cost of any goods. Says Saunders, who will sell Keedoozle franchises in other cities: “It can’t miss. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever had.”

At least, that’s how it was all supposed to go down, in theory. Saunders tried the Keedoozle concept three times, but failed each time because the circuits couldn’t handle the traffic during peak hours. Customers regularly got mixed-up orders. In addition, the conveyer-belt system wasn’t fast enough or efficient enough when there was high demand. Keedoozle closed its doors for good in 1949.

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