Product Puzzle: UNA and the Grocers United Stores

In Associated Wholesalers Ltd (AWL), Baking Powder, Chapman Bros, Countdown supermarkets, Dollarwise supermarkets, Family Fare convenience stores, Foodmaster convenience stores, G.U.S. Stores, G.U.S. Wholessaling, Grocer's United Stores, IGA Stores, Independent Grocers Alliance NZ Ltd, J. B. Rattray, Jellishus Jelly Crystals, Magnum Corporation, Pricecutter supermarkets, Progressive Enterprises, Rattray & Sons Ltd teas, Rothman Industries (NZ), Super 7 supermarkets, Super Value Supermarket Group, Super Value supermarkets, Target Stores, UNA brand, Uncategorized, Woolworth's supermarkets, Woolworths on August 30, 2012 at 10.46

With a little help from fellow foodstuffs freak Mike Davidson, who recently uncovered a rare cookbook brochure and asked me what I knew about it, I have been able to find out a bit more about the South Island enterprise “G U.S.” , the Grocer’s United Stores – which were quite a large chain of stores in New Zealand in the late 1920s to the 1950s (that I am aware of) – and subsequently link it to my story recently on IGA, which almost asked more questions than it gave answers:


Top: recreation of a UNA brand baking powder label from a photo of an old can, above. The tin likely dates from the late 1930s- early 1940s.

The only item that I had ever seen thus far at auction was a baking powder tin for the “UNA” label, which cropped up last year in a lot of old household tins, and was G.U.S. Wholesaling’s self brand. I have recreated it here.

Grocers United Stores recipe book, image courtesy of Mike Davidson collection.

I have records in my database that in the 1930s – jelly crystals, tea, coffee, canned fruits, vinegar ,cocoa, cornflour and fly bands (which I think are some kind of fishing weights), medicines (non-specific, and possibly referring to a line including) cod liver oil, were being produced under the UNA label.

Intelligent and painstaking: Ellesmere Guardian, July 1940.

By the early 1940s the UNA range also comprised of custard powder, baking powder, cooking oil, jam including home-made orange marmalade, lemon marmalade and lemon honey, olive oil, chocolate cake filling, coffee essence, soap, fly reels, salt, honey, floor polish, canned peas, “Six-In-One” skin lotion, tomato sauce, lino polish, Spanish cream, instant chocolate custard, and an exotic sounding instant dessert named “Sno Foam”. Cornflour , jelly crystals, honey, and biscuits of several varieties, were simultaneously marketed under the G U.S. brand in the 1940s. “Jellishus” was another brand of jelly crystals produced by the company at that time.

IGA truck being loaded and secured for delivery, showing G.U.S. Wholesaling details on it. Probably early 1960s. Christchurch City Library collection, ref HW10-Ho-137

G.U.S. was launched in 1928 as a co-op (given that every store remained privately owned and the proprietor intensely vetted before being signed up) by E.F. and S. J. Chapman; and very quickly they had built up 15 stores. By 1948 that had multiplied to a very impressive 167 stores. Still, way behind the Self Help chain and – especially Four Square, which I covered in this article here


It is true they had been left in the dust by both of those other co-ops come the late 1940s, yet somehow G.U.S. was very able to compete and build their organisation against those two industry giants over the decades – in particular Foodstuffs (Christchurch) Ltd which was successful enough during this period to finally bite the bullet and open a massive Southland warehouse in 1956. So although G.U.S. Stores are truly forgotten now, it’s quite likely that they were in actual fact the third largest chain of grocery co-op stores in New Zealand in the first two thirds of the twentieth century.

G.U.S. store on corner of Welles and Manchester streets, Christchurch city. This looks like it was taken in the 1930s, and the supermarket remained until the 1960s when it moved to Chappie Place, Hornby. Christchurch City Library collection, ref HW10-Ho-135

To bolster their success in the 1930s, the Chapman brothers also launched a chain of stores named “Target” (no relation to the international department store chain of today), again a co-op made up of individual private owners, with the slogan “where the housewife scores!” Although not grocery orientated per se, this was dependant on the nature of the individual business – but they were more akin to the modus operandi of Woolworths, MacDuffs and McKenzies during that period – with a focus on household items as well as decorative gewgaws. Again had their own self line including butter. I had seen a picture in one of Richard Wolfe’s books and always wondered about this mysterious chain over the years; now I have stumbled over the link via the UNA tea advert I have posted here, I know.

1934 Grocers United company Picnic, Amberley Park. The use of the IGA letterhead indicates that the Hawkins shops were once upon a time G.U.S. stores. Christchurch City Library collection, ref HW10-Ho-134

Somehow I missed a bunch of material whilst researching my IGA story a short while back which would have told me, as it turns out, that IGA (Independent Grocers Alliance NZ Ltd) was launched in New Zealand under the umbrella of G.U.S. Wholesaling, so I imagine that although there were probably a lot of new shops created, most of the stores that were part of Grocers United Stores may also have been re-branded to IGA.

The trend of the day may have been IGA, but this delivery truck still has G.U.S. details on the cab; probably late 1950s. Christchurch City Library collection, ref HW10-Ho-136

Eventually, as the decades passed, all the stores under the G.U.S. banner were split across a few chain brands: SuperValue (around as far back as the late 1960s that I know of), Dollarwise, Pricecutter, IGA and Super 7  convenience stores (all still have branches open as far as I can see), while G.U.S. Wholesaling became known as the “Super Value Supermarket Group“.

This map shows locations of Grocers United Stores in 1948. image courtesy of Mike Davidson collection.

The J.B. Rattray Group , who got their start in teas – particularly three very successful brands: Tiger (1890s-1980s), Gold Leaf (1890s-1930s), and Edglets (post 1940s), and established the very successful Countdown supernmarkets in 1981 – purchased the Super Value group in 1991.

Some of the UNA brand line, advertised in the Ellesmere Guardian, September 1943.

In Alistair Pringle’s “New Worlds and Fresh Choices?” he writes : “Through its subsidiary J.B. Rattray, Magnum (Enterprises) first purchased the former Woolworths-owned, Auckland-based Associated Wholesalers Ltd (AWL)…(acquiring) seven North Island warehouses and 130 independently owned Foodmaster and Family Fare convenience stores”. This apparently occurred in 1992. Since the Super Value Supermarket Group merged with Woolworths in 1979, according to another source, presumably this was included in the deal along with the five brands I mentioned above.

A Chapman Bros’s Target Store, probably snapped in the mid 1930s. Image courtesy of Richard Wolfe and Stephen Barnett’s book “New Zealand: In Praise of Kiwiana”, 1989.

Magnum Corporation were the owners of  Rothman Industries (NZ) at the time and acquired Rattray in the mid 1980s as a subsidiary part of Rothman. They went on to gobble up Progressive Enterprises also (which included Foodtown, Three Guys, and Georgie Pie).

Advert for Target Stores from the Ellesmere Guardian, March 1934.

Yeah, and then there were some more mergers, acquisitions and takeovers which I could go on about, but I am going to call it a day. It’s so convoluted it’s like a set of Babushka Dolls with enterprises that fit one inside the other, inside another one – until it becomes completely confusing to the layman.

Advert for UNA brand tea for the Ellesmere Guardian, November 1933, shows reference to both G.U.S. “United” stores as well as “Target”.

My conjecture is that – while the actual company retained the G.U.S. name, the brand had disappeared by the late 1950s, subsumed by the glitzier American offering of IGA. which in the post-war years held fresh appeal for consumers obsessed with Yankee-style convenience – over fusty personal service all wrapped up in a plain brown paper wrapper, and trussed up in string.

  1. Hi here
    We have just purchased the building where GUS was in ch ch, at 44 Welles street.
    Thank you for all the historic information

  2. Thanks Richard, maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll find something in the attic, in the walls or under the floor!

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