Alan Sainsbury

By: Victoria Yates

Alan John Sainsbury was born in London on the 13th of August 1902 to John Benjamin Sainsbury and Mabel Miriam. He was the eldest grandson (his younger brother Robert came along four years later) of the founders of the dynastic food-retailing business we know today as Sainsbury’s. Alan grew up in the Edwardian, middle-class environs of Hampstead where he attended Haileybury College. Despite the family success, his Jewish mother and tradesman father caused tension between him and his peers, igniting Alan’s enduring dislike of English snobbery.

After graduating, Alan went to work in a mission in the East End of London. Eventually, at the age of eighteen, he gave in to his mother’s plea to join the family business. By that time, 1921, Sainsbury’s had evolved from a corner shop in Drury Lane to a partnership owned by his father and grandfather with hundreds of stores. The year after, J. Sainsbury Ltd was formed as a private limited company but the business was still very much a family matter and Sainsbury proved a deft hand.

His first job was under the tutelage of his uncles Arthur and Alfred buying dairy for the shops but Alan requested a transfer to the retail side. He began serving incognito behind the counter at a Boscombe, Dorset branch as ‘Mr Alan’ until a family friend recognised him. The experience nevertheless inspired him to stay on with the firm. Returning to headquarters, Alan made steady gains in responsibility for buying and retailing aspects.

In October 1925, Alan married Doreen Davan Adams with whom he went on to have three sons: John (1927), Simon (1930) and Timothy (1932). It was also during this period that Alan’s strong sense of social injustice fuelled an attempted move into politics. He ran as a Liberal candidate in Suffolk in 1929, ‘31, and again in ‘35 when he came close to winning. Between 1920 and 1939, the company was also experiencing a remarkable growth. Moving from a regional chain with annual sales of around £5million to one of Britain’s largest, with sales of around £12.6million a year.

Alan and Doreen were divorced in 1939, and he went on to marry Elizabeth Lewy five years later. The couple had a daughter, Paulette, in 1946.

After his father was forced to retire in 1938 because of ill health, Alan and his brother took over as joint general managers, with Alan handling trading and his brother overseeing administration, finance, and personnel. Within a few years, the war began and English food habits were hit hard. Much of the South East was evacuated because of the threat of bombing and food rationing was introduced. It was a difficult time for the industry and for the chain –which specialised in high-quality fresh food­– but the pair refused to be brought down by the War, seeing their role as one of national duty. Instead, Alan’s beliefs and business sense cemented the company’s reputation for fairness during this period.

He implemented a points rationing system to ensure the goods in short supply were fairly distributed that was later introduced by the Ministry of Food as the standard for groceries. Alongside instilling a sense of duty and honesty in his workers regarding rationing and running an advertising campaign aimed at helping customers with food shopping during wartime, Alan also served more public roles. He was recruited on Ministry of Food committees as a representative of multiple grocers and served as chairman of the ministry’s import committees on poultry and rabbits.  After the war, Alan went on to be a member of the Williams committee on milk distribution from 1947-48.

In the post-War era, the government was enthusiastic about new food production and sources, ideas which led, in 1949, to Alan travelling to America on a diplomatic visa with his fellow director Fred Salisbury to study the frozen food industry. While in America, Alan was converted to the self-serve style of food retail, a sharp contrast to the traditional English system where a grocer takes the order, collects the item from the shelf, tallied the cost and arranged delivery if necessary.

He was granted a trial of this new service method and converted a Croydon shop to self-service in 1950. On opening day, Alan stood and handed out wire baskets to incoming customers. Not everyone liked it and, with the cloud of war and rationing, expansion was slow. But the shops clear popularity (sales had almost trebled after the conversion) encouraged the brothers, who went on to oversee a massive expansion and the creation of more customer convenience centred stores.

Part of this shift, Alan recognised, was reconsidering packaging and turning products themselves into ‘silent salesmen.’ In 1950, Alan appointed Leonard Beaumont to be the company’s design consultant. The pair radically reimagined Sainsbury’s image, embracing a clean and simplified style for the new self-service stores and innovatively applying design as a marketing tool. By 1960 10 percent of the shops were self-service, and by 1970 they had hit 50 percent. 

In 1956, Alan became chairman of the company. He nevertheless maintained his role as joint general manager with his brother until 1962.

His political ambitions were finally realised in 1962 when Alan was made a life peer at the recommendation of Hugh Gaitskell. He chose the title Baron Sainsbury of Drury Lane after the location where his grandparents had first set up shop. As ever, he saw this new role as a calling for more active engagement, championing consumers’ rights. He served as chairman on committees about the relationship of the pharmaceutical industry and the NHS, food research, and trade. One of his most thorough campaigns however was against trading stamps in 1963/4. He felt the stamps to be dishonest, doing neither the retailer or customer any benefit, and he drew up a campaign on three fronts; an advertising campaign in stores, in his role as chairman of the Distributive Trade Alliance, and in the House of Lords.

Outside of politics, he remained active in the retail world, committed to the exchange of information and raising standards across the industry as a whole. For these causes he again served on various committees and federations including roles at the Multiple Shops Federation, the Grocer’s Institute, and the International Association of Chain Stores.

In 1967, Alan retired as chairman of Sainsbury’s. While he continued to be avidly interested in the business, he was keen to pass on the mantle to his successors. In his retirement, Alan also remained active in politics and charity work where his causes included underprivileged children, medical research, and promoting Christian-Jewish understanding.

Baron Alan Sainsbury died at home in Halstead, Essex on the 21st of October 1998. He was a true innovator and campaigner with an unfailing sense of fairness that pervaded his leadership in business dealings and across political and charitable endeavours.