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 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 explains that Heaton Barker, one of Foodstuffs’ founding members and Chief Executive recorded how the ‘4 Square’ name 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 with no experience in the grocery trade decided to establish a chain of grocery stores throughout New Zealand. Ben Sutherland 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 was 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 and that 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 a nationwide presence.
While the Four Square brand has evolved to ensure it remains relevant in the hearts and minds of Kiwi shoppers, there are a number of aspects which continue to give it that nostalgic feel. ‘Charlie’ (or ‘Mr 4 Square’) came into being in the 1950s when he first started to appear in 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.
Four Square 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 gift baskets, baby food or even Mini Coopers. Dads were not forgotten either, with cigars featuring as a popular gift back in the day.
Today there are 274 Four Square stores nationwide with many owners who are third or fourth generation grocers. Four Square Martinborough for example was established in 1873 and 141 years later it is still being run by its fourth generation of owners – Conor and Philippa Kershaw.