When Asda (capitalised as ASDA from 1985) came into being in 1965 the grocery and provisions trade was undergoing a radical transformation throughout the British Isles.
Small counter-service shops were gradually being superseded by self-service ‘supermarkets’, defined as having a minimum sales area of 2,000 sq. ft. Many supermarkets occupied converted redundant buildings, such as cinemas, but others were purpose-built in high-street locations.
The ideal supermarket was ill-suited to an urban setting. New-build supermarkets were often recessed behind the building line to create space for prams, stacks of baskets, or even trolleys. Furthermore, their low roofs allowed the scarred party walls of their neighbours to be seen from the street. Food retailers found it difficult to secure suitable sites with access to parking, let alone space for free-standing buildings. Inspired by American practice, some began to consider the potential of trading off-centre, despite the fact that few local authorities were prepared to countenance such a move.
It was in this context that Asda Stores Ltd was formed by the merger of two separate Yorkshire businesses: one rooted in dairy farming and the other in butchery.
Associated Dairies & Farm Stores Ltd had been created in 1949, when Hindells Dairy Farmers Ltd and its subsidiaries merged with several other businesses. Managed by Arthur Stockdale, it traded as wholesale and retail dairymen, café proprietors, pork butchers, bacon curers, provision retailers and farmers. The company had some retail experience, running chains of shops and cafés as Farm Stores, Bramhams and Craven Dairies, but its core business was the production and distribution of milk. Farm Stores and Craven Dairies kept going until 1973, when their staff were redeployed in Asda stores.
In 1965 Associated Dairies acquired a majority stake in Asquith’s. Peter and Fred Asquith had inherited a small chain of butchers’ shops from their father but were more interested in experimenting with supermarket retailing. They had opened their first ‘Asquith’ supermarket near the bus station in Pontefract in 1958, followed by more successful ‘Queens’ supermarkets in Castleford (a conversion of an old theatre/cinema) and Edlington (an indoor market hall).
Like most urban supermarket conversions, the Castleford store was imperfect. Since it had a stepped entrance, customers had to use baskets rather than trolleys. The upper-floor stockroom was connected to the loading bay by a conveyor belt and to the store by a manually-operated hoist. The sales floor, comprising about 3,000 sq. ft., had a meat counter but otherwise adopted a self-service format with 6ft. aisles. Lack of space limited the range of fruit and vegetables that could be sold.
Just months after Asda invested in Asquith’s, a purpose-built ‘Asda Queens’ supermarket opened on an old cinema site with a large surface car park in South Elmsall. The austere, boxy design – a visible reinforced-concrete frame with buff brick infill panels and narrow bands of windows lighting an upper-floor stockroom – perfectly matched Asda’s no-frills policy. Eventually an old billiard hall on an adjacent site was converted to accommodate the non-food department.
Asda’s interest in the potential of off-centre superstores for car-borne shoppers was revealed in October 1966 when it acquired a controlling interest in GEM Supercentres. Such an ambitious move may have been encouraged by the recent abolition of Resale Price Maintenance. This opened the door to cut-throat discounting, a style of retailing which was most effective on a grand scale, and which greatly appealed to Asda.
GEM Supercentres were a failed American initiative. The first opened in West Bridgford, Nottingham, in November 1964, followed by Crossgates, Leeds, in March 1965. A third GEM Supercentre, promised for Castle Lane, Bournemouth, never materialised (the Hampshire Centre opened on the site in 1968 with a large Woolco store). GEM arrived just months after the opening of Safeway’s first free-standing new-build supermarket at Blackfen in Kent and was contemporary with the Supermac development on the edge of Belfast.
The Crossgates GEM occupied a converted cinema, albeit one with an underground car park and an expansive upper floor devoted to the sale of non-food items. More intriguingly, the Nottingham GEM was purpose-built on the site of a former rubbish tip. Designed by the Austin-Smith/Salmon/Lord Partnership following American precedents, this was a monolithic single-storey structure with a steel frame clad in ribbed aluminium sheeting. Its lack of conventional display windows puzzled the Architectural Review, which remarked that its industrial character ‘would not attract the casual passer-by’. But the Supercentre was not designed for the passer-by. GEM was a destination, rewarding shoppers who had driven from far afield with 700 free parking spaces and a petrol filling station.
The vast Nottingham GEM comprised around 80,000 sq. ft., of which 60,000 sq. ft. was dedicated to the sales area (compared with 38,000 sq. ft at Crossgates), including a supermarket of around 12,000 sq. ft. (6,500 sq. ft. at Crossgates). GEM operated on a concessionary basis, with each department having its own checkouts. Concessionaires – like Boots, Dixons, Northgate & English Stores, The Times Furnishing Co., Lex Garages, Finch’s and Allied Suppliers – were all expected to maintain their anonymity.
Asda began by taking over the GEM supermarkets from Allied Suppliers (specifically, Allied’s Meadow Dairy subsidiary) and successfully introducing discounting. It took some time to transform each GEM into a centralised superstore operation, with a single bank of checkouts. Indeed, Finch’s retained their wine and spirits franchise until the mid-1970s. Asda kept GEM’s cafés, motoring accessory departments and tyre bays, firmly believing in engaging the interest of men (the drivers!) while women shopped. It also retained the filling stations, expanding this side of the business when the Asquiths bought premises in North Baileygate, Pontefract, and began to sell cheap petrol imported from Rotterdam.
A third GEM – known as a ‘Super Discount Centre’ rather than a ‘Supercentre’ – was created after Asda acquired William Bartfield’s Allways-Fame Group, with supermarkets in Preston and Manchester. The Preston outlet, in an old woollen mill, was considered too big to be branded ‘Asda Queens’, so it became a GEM.
Many ideas from GEM translated into Asda’s smaller Queens supermarkets, especially the idea of the upper-floor non-food section and the importance of catering for the car-borne shopper. In 1967 a new store was built in West Row, Stockton-on-Tees, a backstreet location served by a small surface car park. The supermarket was a simple free-standing box, constructed and clad in much the same manner as the earlier South Elmsall store, but with an upper sales floor – perhaps originally designed as a stockroom – for DIY and household goods. By this time Tesco had also established a two-level format for its town-centre stores, with ‘Home’n’Wear’ departments above a supermarket. Unlike Tesco, however, Asda did not sell much clothing before c.1970.
Around 1969 the Castleford supermarket was rebuilt on a new site in what had become Asda’s usual style and materials – as a buff-brick box – but on a larger scale than either South Elmsall or Stockton-on-Tees. With its substantial entrance canopy, the building resembled a cinema or a furniture store. The stockroom was situated to the rear while the upper floor – here more obviously part of the initial design concept – was devoted to non-food. This was still an urban store, however, lacking its own car park.
The three purpose-built Queens supermarkets in South Elmsall, Stockton-on-Tees and Castleford appear to have been designed by the same architect and built to the same system. Asda did not have an in-house team of architects and relied on several different firms over the years. One architect who enjoyed a long association with Asda was Mike O’Connor of Wrightson Jackman & O’Connor (later Dewjoc). He may have been the designer of these early Queens supermarkets.
At least two further Queens supermarkets were built with two sales floors around 1970, in Bury and Barnsley. Both sites provided limited customer parking.
Alongside its purpose-built Queens supermarkets and GEM discount centres, Asda created a motley portfolio in the late 1960s, continuing with its off-centre experiments whilst making the most of restrictive urban sites. Perhaps impressed by the Fame store in Preston, several redundant textile mills were taken over for conversion, including one in Nixon Street, Castleton. This stood some distance from the main shopping centre and relied on a combination of public and private transportation. Central stores were necessarily more makeshift. The Accrington supermarket occupied a converted car showroom, with a ramped entrance over the former basement garage, while Salford occupied a former chain store and had a sales area of just 5,000 sq. ft. Nevertheless, by 1971 16 of Asda’s 34 stores were categorised by an Observer journalist as ‘hypermarkets’.
Images of Asda’s early stores suggest a scattergun – if not, to be blunt, bargain basement – approach to premises and buildings. But two strands of development in the years 1965-70 proved seminal. Asda’s experience in taking over GEM Supercentres and building its own fully detached Queens supermarkets gave it the confidence and expertise, after 1970, to focus on new-build single-storey superstores (for example in Pudsey), usually with at least 35,000 sq. ft. sales area, on off-centre sites with ample parking. Peter Asquith, followed by Don Ridgway and supported by economist Ed Neafcy, took a lead role in identifying sites and negotiating planning permission, as local authorities increasingly accepted the inevitability of off-centre shopping.
Having adopted a clear strategy for the future, Asda dropped the old GEM and Queens names. It was ‘Asda Discount Centres’ or, more simply, ‘Asda Superstores’, that now led the sector away from the high street.
This post was prompted by the survival of several Asda Queens supermarkets from the 1960s. I am indebted to Richard Harker, a former Director of ASDA, for providing information about the early years of the chain. Thanks, too, to Professor Leigh Sparks for pointing me in the right direction.