Lower north shore housewives had never seen anything like it – and on Thursday, 27 August 1959, thousands rushed to experience an American phenomenon known as the “supermarket” for the first time.
Hailed as Australia’s largest one-stop shopping centre, Big Bear heralded a new era in consumer retailing with all the magic of a fairy tale.
Thousands of locals visited Big Bear in Neutral Bay for its grand opening on 27 August, 1959.
From its main entrance on Military Rd, the converted tram depot offered 50,000 square feet of floor space and a carnival of choice: grocery staples, dairy produce, meats, fruit, and fish sat under the same roof as clothing, manchester, kitchen appliances, sporting goods and confectionery.
“This [supermarket] is a dream for the average housewife, who until now trudged from shop to shop in her local shopping precinct, her basket and string bag becoming heavier and heavier with every purchase,” reporter John Grigsby wrote.
“Further, if she has a car, she is confronted with the problem of finding a place to park. She either leaves the children in the car or they trudge along with her, tired and irritable.”
Not so at Big Bear.
In its first three months of trade, Big Bear welcomed 261,000 customers through its doors.
A two-deck parking lot for 400 vehicles, with a unique conveyor system allowing customers’ purchases to travel from the shop counter directly to the boot (in under seven minutes), was a ground-breaking and futuristic invention featured in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The belt is constructed to carry up to 1000 lbs (453kg). The main belt, running the length of the supermarket from Ernest St to Military Rd, operates at 160 feet (48m) a minute.”
Big Bear was the first shopping centre venture for retailer F.J Palmer Holdings, a company that dated back to 1880, when a men’s clothing business was Founded in Regent St, Redfern, by Frederick John Palmer. By 1953, the family owned 60 stores in four states, with an annual turnover of £5 million.
Named after a successful supermarket chain in the US, there was no mistaking the flash local landmark, with its huge, fluorescent plastic bear marking the entrance and 38 flagpoles with brightly coloured standards enticing curious Sydneysiders to adopt this novel way of purchasing daily essentials.
Lower north shore housewives were dazzled by the new phenomenon of “one-stop-shopping”.
Facing Military Rd was an extended wing of the building, which housed a milk bar, fruit and vegetable stall, American-style drug store, coffee bar and a convenient drive-through bottle shop to please thirsty afternoon commuters in the days before Random Breath Testing.
Once inside, shoppers were given a quick lesson in navigating one of 400 trolleys – and a directory board showed them how to map out their new-fangled supermarket journey.
“The directory board operates on a system of numbers from one to 64,” the Sydney Morning Herald told readers just days before the official opening, “each department has an individual number listed on the board. For women’s cosmetics, the number is 25.”
“Having ascertained this, the customer finds the number 25 among those suspended from the supermarket roof. Directly beneath the number will be the cosmetics display.”
Big Bear supermarket photographed in the 1970’s. Image: Stanton Library.
Piped music and 85 immaculately groomed shop assistants – who had their fingernails checked for cleanliness before each shift – also helped to provide a relaxing escape from the daily grind.
“A section of the supermarket is set aside for mothers who wish to leave their children in prams while they shop,” the Herald wrote. “The prams will be numbered, and if a child starts to cry, the mother will be paged over the loudspeaker system.”
But it wasn’t just lower north shore homemakers who were dazzled by this new American way of shopping.