The gangster of groceries
At one time, almost everybody could say that they had a local Tom the Cheap grocer. On page 7 of the edition dated 11 January, 1967 the North East Leader a Messenger Newspaper reported on grocery specials on sale at the Modbury Tom the Cheap store on the corner of Grand Junction and North East Roads (now the site of Barnacle Bills and IGA).
There really was a ‘Tom’. Thomas Wardle opened his first discount grocery store in North Perth in the 1950s. At this time, Australians mainly shopped at grocery stores which offered over the counter service. There were some ‘Cash and Carry’ stores which relied on self-service but supermarkets were a novelty. On a trip to Sweden with his wife, Wardle was influenced by the European model of shopping where customers could walk down aisles, choosing their purchases (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wardle).
During the 1950s, it was common practice for manufacturers to fix a resale price for their goods. Retailers then resold the goods to consumers for a healthy profit margin. Today, the Competition and Consumer Act (which replaced the Trade Practices Act of 1974) forbids resale price maintenance. Tom Wardle’s main selling point was that he claimed to only mark up his stock by ten percent, whereas the other supermarket retailers usually charged twenty five to thirty percent when goods were not ‘on special’. Tom the Cheap did not sell products below cost but naturally customers loved the discounts.
In a conservative era, manufacturers and wholesalers were outraged by Wardle’s approach and some refused to supply him with goods. So Wardle took to importing merchandise directly and he established relationships with suppliers interstate to make his purchases. Tom the Cheap became a highly profitable business enterprise in WA and by 1959 fifteen stores were in operation. In 1962 Tom Wardle expanded his chain of stores into South Australia. He eventually established more than 200 stores in four states.
Tom Wardle cleverly exploited his notoriety with suppliers and other retailers. Australians love a rebel. Wardle advertised his Tom character as a convict in prison garb, ‘the bad boy’ of grocery shopping who was “Australia’s greatest price-cutter”. Wardle also courted publicity. He openly criticised his competitors, accusing them of greed and fleecing the public. It is reported that when Wardle opened one of his stores he employed the services of marching girls, a jazz band, and a belly dancer. Prominent footballers and a radio announcer also made an appearance.
Tom Wardle was probably guilty of some crookery, as he is reputed to have paid low wages to his mainly female staff. His ‘no frills’ approach to shopping was not limited to pricing. Wardle used cheap advertising and he bought up or rented run down, disused buildings (such as this old theatre on Anzac Highway at Goodwood pictured below) to set up shop, as they were cheap to fit out (https://australianfoodtimeline.com.au/tom-the-cheap/).
It should be acknowledged that while Tom Wardle became incredibly wealthy, he was also a philanthropist who made sizeable donations to schools, hospitals, sporting bodies, womens’ organisations and the Arts. Tom Wardle even bought his own island (where he later retired) when the West Australian Government sold Dirk Hartog Island in 1968, which is situated near Shark Bay. Tom Wardle was elected Mayor of Perth in 1967. During his life, he was aslo honoured with many important appointments in the service of the public (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wardle).
In the 1980s the character of Tom briefly reinvented himself as a superhero who fought against high grocery prices. These advertisements were probably influenced by the popularity of the Superman movie series, starring Christopher Reeve. ‘Supertom’, the caped crusader appeared on television commercials accompanied by a robotic companion, which resembled a round vacuum cleaner with metallic arms. If you can remember the name of Tom’s sidekick, or would like to share your memories of Tom the Cheap, please let us know!
Tom Wardle had been interested in investing in property development since the 1960s. In 1972 he purchased a majority share in Westhaven Securities Limited, a property investment company. Unfortunately in 1977 the company defaulted on a substantial loan used to finance property purchases which triggered the collapse of The Tom the Cheap family companies. The supermarkets went into receivership in mid-1978 and they were forced to close (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wardle). Tom Wardle died in 1997.