How retail revolution launched in Brisbane

The Way we Were with Jayne Keogh
in conversation with John Berry and Brisbane's BCC
Sunday Mail 1st Oct 2023

The first free settlers to Brisbane were fed by the sympathy of the Government Commissariat Store on the Wharf in George Street, set up in 1824. As the town grew, entrepreneurial types set up general stores selling basic dry goods, people grew vegetables, kept chickens and cows.

The wealthier had their food basics delivered by boys in a horse and cart to the “tradesmen’s entrance” for the cook from individual traders. By the 20th Century these shops had expanded from town centres to surrounding suburbs, but the shopping list still needed delivery to most households.

Due to lack of refrigeration, meat and dairy had to be purchased daily due to our hot summers and few people owned cars. This system of delivery continued in the new suburbs, built to accommodate returning veterans (from WW1), parents of the Baby Boomers using their War Service Loans. The local baker would arrive with large open baskets filled with flour-dusted loaves, finger buns and soft dinner rolls, fresh vegetables and fruit from an open-sided truck, the “milko” with milk and cream and newspapers hurled twice a day by a man driving a car – with the driver’s door missing!

However, shopping rapidly changed to supermarkets, pioneered in Brisbane, the first in Australia. The self-service grocery store Piggly Wiggly was invented in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916. Canny Scottish immigrant Claude Fraser heard about this and in 1921 opened Brisbane Cash and Carry in Fortitude Valley. Shortened to BCC, his second store opened in West End (in 1922) and by 1950 the chain was the largest in Australia.

The concept was simple: rows of stacked open shelves where the shopper helped themselves, popped the items into their own basket, unloaded on to a counter for the shop assistant to tally up in her head, and paid for in cash. Dry goods that had previously been sold in bulk were now packaged, as were butter, cheese and some basic small goods like Windsor Sausage and bacon. BCC spruiked that food would be cheaper as they bought in bulk, fewer staff were needed and shopping was fast and more efficient.

BCC rapidly evolved with the arrival of another British immigrant, Joe Berry, an orphaned Liverpudlian who arrived in Brisbane in 1929 as part of a scheme to attract farm workers. He was from a poor family from the slums, an aspirational young man who asked Claude Fraser for a job and ended up as managing director of BCC.

He introduced the idea of weekly “specials”, so the checkout girls had to memorise those prices as well as every other price in the shop! “Dad would give the girls a test every Monday morning to make sure they knew all the prices and if they made one mistake they would be demoted to shelf stacking for a day,” says his son, John Berry. “They hated that, because the sales girls were paid men’s rates and shelf stackers went back to women’s pay – imagine that today!”

John tells many anecdotes on his father’s salesmanship, love of the grocery industry and innovations, like the use of bar codes for pricing, trolleys, open cold cabinets and loading the register race. This idea came about when Joe spotted a regular at West End who wrapped a marmalade label around strawberry jam in his basket because it was tuppence cheaper. Joe was a real showman and every store opening was heralded by a brass band on the back of a truck driving around the location giving away English farthings. The checkout girls were supplied with smart sky blue uniforms with white collars and he bought radio ads with the jingle “Shop with the Girls in Blue” which John delights in singing!


In 1958 they were bought out by Woolworths as the start-up for their supermarkets and the rest is history. Joe’s legacy was carried on strongly by John, who also joined the grocery industry and was a strong supporter of independent retailers. “I went to university and got a commerce degree, which Dad was pleased about because he couldn’t add up,” he said. To honour his father’s contribution, John started the “Joe Berry Award” in Australia, Britain and New Zealand to encourage young retailers. Presented annually, the winner receives a study tour to the retail capitals of the world along with introductions to these markets. “I am so proud of Dad’s role in the huge industry that’s now part of daily life. Australians should also be proud that a poorly educated orphan from the slums of Liverpool can arrive here with nothing but a work ethic and new ideas and create so much. So the award is Dad giving these young people the leg-up he never had. He would love that,” John said.

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