Migros celebrates 75 years

Zurich residents shopping at a Migros van in 1954 Keystone

Seventy five years ago, Gottlieb Duttweiler sent five vans he had converted into mobile stores on to the streets of Zurich to sell basic foodstuffs. It was the start of Migros, which today is Switzerland's number one retailer.

This content was published on August 25, 2000 - 10:56

Duttweiler, the third of five children, was born on August 15, 1888, in Zurich. He is widely accepted as having been a commercial genius, combining bright ideas with a strong sense of social responsibility.

It was Duttweiler's dream to create the most direct sales organisation possible - a bridge between producer and consumer. That dream became reality with Migros, which is today one of the country's most important economic and social institutions.

Duttweiler spent his entire savings on five Ford T vans, which travelled around selling coffee, rice, sugar, pasta, coconut fat and soap for up to 40 per cent cheaper than his competitors. It was no surprise therefore that he was attacked from many sides - except by his customers.

Suppliers and farmers' organisations feared for their profits and joined a boycott of branded manufacturers. Bosses forbade their employees to buy Migros products. Duttweiler was even dubbed "public enemy number one".

Despite the difficulties, Duttweiler persevered. A year after its creation, Migros had 12 vans and 466 selling points but a stop of only 15 minutes was permitted at each. It was in 1926 that Migros also opened its first store in Zurich.

To counter the opposition, Migros began to buy its own factories and build its own plants. Even today, Migros' own brands are a special feature of the product mix.

Duttweiler's pioneering spirit and a ban on setting up new stores (1933-45) led him to enter politics. He was elected to the Swiss House of Representatives in 1935 and he remained there, with one brief interruption, until 1962. With like-minded friends, he formed the Independents' Party in 1936.

Duttweiler hit the headlines again in 1941 when he decided to transform Migros into regional cooperatives. As he did not have children, he wanted to avoid an unfriendly takeover, so he handed Migros over to his customers, giving them membership certificates or "social shares". Today Migros belongs to 1,800,000 households.

Five years before his death in 1962 at the age of 74, Duttweiler introduced a "cultural levy" to promote cultural, social and educational projects. Migros donates about one per cent of annual sales to cultural activities - a budget which totals more than SFr100 million ($58 million).

Perhaps one of the more surprising features of Migros is that it does not sell alcohol or tobacco. Duttweiler considered them the greatest threat to the family. His refusal to sell these products was finally anchored in the Migros statutes in 1983.

In 1993, Migros experienced a setback when it tried unsuccessfully to enter the Austrian market. Partnership with Austria's Konsum Verein turned into a failure, which cost Migros more than SFr250 million. However, in Switzerland, Migros has continued to expand, buying a majority stake in the Globus chain in 1997.

Today, Migros has almost 590 points of sale and a staff of 78,000. Turnover last year was SFr18.7 billion.

by Robert Brookes

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