Four Square marks its 90th anniversary

Four Square is a New Zealand business story that started in the 1920s and grew to become a part of our national heritage. It all started in the early part of the century after the First World War with a company that was developed out of desperation and born in adversity, one which would develop a tradition of service to be proud of.

Steve Anderson, Managing Director, Foodstuffs New Zealand recalls that Heaton Barker, one of Foodstuffs founding members and Chief Executive recorded how both the '4 Square' name and trademark came about, on 4 July 1924.

"Barker recalled that he was on the phone to one of the directors trying to determine a name for the group of stores when suddenly he looked down and ?there staring me in the face, were the lines I had drawn around the figure. Four Square, of course'," says Anderson. "The fact that the name and symbol came about on American Independence Day had added significance for the group who were after a brand which epitomised the private independent grocer."

In Wellington, despite the adverse post-war trading conditions, a Railways employee, Ben Sutherland, with no experience in the grocery trade, decided to establish a chain of grocery stores throughout New Zealand. He took over empty shops wherever he could, and unlike the competition of the day, spent little or nothing on decoration and appearance, offering no wrapping, credit or delivery, and cut prices on multiple product lines. The end result being a chain of stores called 'Self Help'.

"In a few short years the number of Self Help stores around the country had proliferated to around 130 stores, causing the independent grocers to stand up and take stock," says Anderson.

The independent grocers solution was to enter into better buying arrangements and some of the more progressive grocers decided to pool their resources to achieve this aim. It also became clear to the group that to achieve real success it needed to establish a company which could be recognised by the manufacturers as a wholesaler, which is how United Buyers Limited came to be registered in December 1929. In May 1935 United Buyers Limited would in turn become Foodstuffs (Wellington) Limited and Amalgamated Buyers Limited would adopt the title Foodstuffs (Christchurch) Limited giving the group an established a nationwide presence.

Today there are 274 Four Square stores to be found nationwide with many owners who are third or fourth generation grocers including Conor Kershaw from Four Square Martinborough. Four Square Martinborough was established in 1873, and 141 years later it is still being run by its 4th generation of owners ' Conor and Philippa Kershaw.

Kershaw says, "That supermarkets are in my blood, my Dad, Grandad and Great-Grandad all owned this store previously. Being able to provide great products and service to friends, family and the wider community is just what we do. I couldn?t imagine doing anything else, i's a true passion."

While the Four Square brand has adapted and moved with the times to ensure it has remained relevant in the hearts and minds of Kiwi shoppers there are a number of aspects which continue give it that nostalgic feel. One that immediately springs to mind is 'Charlie' or 'Mr 4 Square' who first came into being in the 1950s when he first started to appear in newspaper advertising and posters. Charlie eventually became an inherent part of the company's national identity and was immortalised as a New Zealand icon in 1982 when Dick Frizzell gave the character the pop culture treatment.

The brand was renowned for a number of traditions in particular its 4th of July birthday celebrations where babies were gifted with teddy bears and Mums received anything from gift baskets, to baby food and Mini Coopers. Dads were not forgotten with cigars featuring as a popular gift back in the day. Four Square customer Ian Dowdall was going through his parent?s photos and papers recently and came across the original Four Square birthday letter sent to his mother following his birth on the 4th July 1965.

"Having just lost Dad I was taking a walk down memory lane and stumbled across this old letter from Four Square. I just had to send it to the company as it really took me back to my youth. I have so many fond memories of that teddy bear who unfortunately met an untimely end after years of being a firm favourite. It's quite funny seeing the Van Hartog Coronita cigars as the gift for Dad, things are so politically correct now you'd never get a gift like that," says Dowdall.

Four Square is continuing to reward its customers with this year's birthday gifts including the opportunity to win a special edition Mini and celebration cake tins for customers who spend $30 or more in-store. Babies born on the 4th July this year will receive a free teddy bear and $50 gift vouchers, with two teddy bears and $500 going to twins born on this day.