NEW PODCAST LIVE NOW Reflecting on Stephen Hawking

'Pile them High, Sell them Cheap'

Published June 09, 2021 by Dr John F Mueller

Dr John F Mueller discusses TESCO, German department stores and the overcoming of prejudice through business.

The supermarket chain TESCO was founded just over 100 years ago by Sir Jack Cohen, son of a Polish-Jewish Tailor from Whitechapel. Today the company is considered the third largest retailer in the world, but it all began with a barrow on Hackney market from which Jack sold army-surplus goods. With the help of his tea supplier, and possible business partner, T. E. Stockwell he soon opened branches, combining their names to form the brand 'TESCO'.

In founding his retailing empire on a staple of the local population, namely Tea, Jack was following in the footsteps of many successful Jews in business from central Europe. Adept at understanding the everyday needs of Germans, Jewish-owned department stores had become so much part of the landscape of people's lives that the National Socialists had to face extreme opposition in ousting them.

The parallels between Jack and Jewish department store founders in Germany are remarkable. Their ancestors had eked out a more or less meagre existence in the Prussian provinces (or Poland in Jack's case) and when the German Empire was formed in 1871 (or the Second World War ended in Britain), liberating the economy and the Jewish people to a greater extent, they saw a business opportunity. Everything they did made commercial sense, geared towards the customer as a major active agent. The concentration on certain geographic areas – at first – made logistic sense. The establishing of branches increased orders. Going straight to the manufacturer reduced the purchase price. Introducing affordable luxuries encouraged well to do people to shop with them. Erecting purpose-built stores gave local craftsmen lucrative business contracts. Ensuring the architecture was a statement of restrained grandeur elevated the shopping to an experience and the store to a welcome feature on the high street (in Jack's case he took risks in being the first to open stores in new shopping centres out of town). The customer service enforced class structure and allowed every member of society to feel comfortable whilst shopping, providing them with what they needed for a genteel lifestyle. Women were employed because their wages were lower than those of men. Training staff, giving them career opportunities, holidays and perks meant they were fresh-faced, eager and qualified to serve customers – a perfect advertisement for the business. By 1910 no town in Germany was without a department store that had not been founded or run by someone with Jewish heritage.

Gradually these families of Jewish origin became financially comfortable and recognisably middle class, just as Jack and Elizabeth Cohen did. They did so at a time when many Germans were reaping the rewards of the country's industrial boom – or in Jack's case when the British economy began recovering in the second half of the 20th century. Successful business people settled in affluent and leafy districts lined by villas – regardless of their religion or their time. They became active in philanthropy, both for faith-specific and general causes. Whether in Germany or Britain people in business manage to build bridges between faiths.

Attempts were made in Germany to ennoble the Jews who founded department stores, mostly they refused honours. Jack on the other hand accepted his knighthood in 1969. Unfortunately, no amount of success could protect the families of Jewish origin when the National Socialists came to power in Germany in 1933. One by one they were ousted, mainly through back-room manoeuvres; all had to flee or were killed in concentration camps. Jack's business still flourishes in its 102nd year.

John is the keystone historian for a documentary on Channel 5 on the life of Sir Jack Cohen, 'Inside TESCO 24/7' scheduled to be broadcast on Wednesday 16 June 2021 at 7pm. His book 'The Kaiser, Hitler and the Jewish Department Store' will be published with Bloomsbury in Spring 2022. John is Director of Studies in History at St Edmund's College, Cambridge and an Affiliate Researcher at the Woolf Institute.

Back to Blog