Porky Pig became a big star back in the 1930s. The Three Little Pigs have been escaping the Big Bad Wolf since the mid-1800s. And who can forget those little piggies on a baby’s toes, especially the little one, who cried “wee, wee, wee” all the way home? They’ve been around for three centuries or more.
But if you grew up in the South, all references of a porcine nature are secondary to the simple noun that so eloquently describes a legendary supermarket chain. Sadly, after decades of friendly service, “The Pig” is saying goodbye to its devotees East of the Cooper and in other locations in the Charleston area.
It’s easy to understand people being wildly enthusiastic about and intensely loyal to luxury brands such as Porsche, Rolex and Tiffany. It’s a little more complicated to understand such a committed, even rabid, fan following for a supermarket, especially one with a somewhat silly sounding name: Piggly Wiggly.
Yet that’s the case for generation after generation of men and women who live in Dixie. True Pig believers knows in their heart that no other market meets their needs and satisfies their soul like their local Piggly Wiggly.
The Piggly Wiggly empire was founded in Memphis in 1916 by Clarence Saunders, a colorful and innovative entrepreneur who created it as the world’s first self-service grocery store. Previously, customers had to line up to ask a clerk to find them everything from a can of beans to a head of lettuce.
Saunders provided his customers with shopping carts and kept all his goods, prices clearly marked, on open shelves. His original concept cut costs and made shopping much more convenient – probably much more fun, as well.
Although some skeptics felt that The Pig’s self-service idea would never catch on, it was soon emulated nationwide, proving him to be both right and a pioneer.
But what about that odd name? Why did Clarence Saunders choose Piggly Wiggly when most other markets had words such as “food” and “provisions” and “meat and groceries” on the signposts over their front doors?
Legend has it that while mulling over his supermarket concept during a train ride, Saunders looked out the window and saw two piglets trying to wiggle under a farmer’s fence. Wiggly pigglys, he mused. Flipping that rhyme around, he decided to call his market Piggly Wiggly. The rest, as they say, is history.
Asked years later why he chose such an unusual name for his business, Saunders replied enigmatically, “So people would ask that very question.” He had clearly grasped the notion that a little mystery can garner a lot of publicity. The strange name kept people thinking and talking about his grocery stores.
The Piggly Wiggly brand has been featured in motion pictures from “The Butler” and “Driving Miss Daisy” to “Space Jam,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton,” “King Kong Lives,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Run Ronnie,” “Pootie Tang” and even “Bonnie and Clyde.”
The Pig was also frequently referenced on the long-running TV comedy, “That ’70s Show,” and just this season played a role in HBO’s hit series, “Boardwalk Empire.” And in addition to numerous literary references, a book series even gave Piggly Wiggly title exposure.
Piggly Wiggly has created and offered for sale both in stores and online a plethora of products that serve as everyday billboards for its message of friendliness, competitive pricing and convenience. These range from T-shirts and sweatshirts to trucker caps, visors, decals, bumper stickers, mouse pads and even boxer shorts. All are proudly emblazoned with the Pig himself and slogans that include “Get Your Pig On,” “I Dig the Pig” “Getting’ Piggy with It,” “I’m Stickin’ with the Pig” and, the chain’s trademarked slogan, “Local Since Forever.”
Of course, every time loyal Piggly Wiggly followers go outside flashing their Pig attire, they’re a living, breathing advertisement for the famous store where they stock up on food and beverages and also get a dose of that special feeling that comes with being associated with an iconic brand.
With the departure from East Cooper of its old and treasured friend, Piggly Wiggly, those branded items will become treasured keepsakes of a time when The Pig was known and loved by millions of customers throughout the Charleston region.
Lon Mitchell, a resident of Charleston National and a frequent shopper at the Pig, recalled that a few years ago, he wanted to send a Christmas present to the college student daughter of a friend. When he asked her what she wanted as an extra special gift, she told him, “Just send me a Piggly Wiggly T-shirt!”
Longtime Pig customer Frieda Bernstein of Seaside Farms expressed the reason for her loyalty to the brand this way: “They know their customers. Everyone who works at the Pig is pleasant and welcoming and eager to please you in every way. And the Pig is very community and charity minded.”
Now, to Clarence Saunders’ grocery store, which changed sus domesticus from a common hog to a much-beloved part of Southern culture, it’s time to oink one fond and final farewell from shoppers East of the Cooper: You may be gone, but your many friends and fans will always be “loyal since forever.”
By Bill Farley