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Tom the Cheap

Remember ‘Tom the Cheap’, a supermarket chain that first appeared in Adelaide about the 60s & 70s. According to Wikipedia it was started by Tom Wardle from WA and was probably the introduction of aisle type shopping in Australia. Previous to that groceries were served from behind a counter. Tom’s offered a no-frills service with just a 10% markup as opposed to the standard 25% from his competitors.

He started out with just one shop, a corner-store grocery, in 1946 in rented premises in Fitzgerald Street, North Perth steadily building the business and good will. He managed to purchase the property in 1952 and while holidaying in Sweden with his wife in 1955, Tom observed developments in northern European supermarket retailing, which was a move away from shop-counter service to a system which allowed shoppers to browse aisles of produce at their own leisure. He also saw greater competition between retailers, unlike the resale price maintenance regime which seemed to exist in Australia.

In early 1956 he sold the Fitzgerald Street shop and rented larger premises, fitting it out himself with a self-service supermarket layout. He soon opened under a red on white sign displaying “Tom the Cheap”. His business model was essentially discounted trading margins and a no-frills service. Old and new customers soon flocked to the store, attracted by his shop-wide discounts which undercut his opposition. By the early 1960s business was booming and Tom opened four stores in South Australia. He usually favoured old picture theatres which offered plenty of room and were cheap and quick to fit out. By June 1965 he had 90 Western Australian stores, 24 in South Australia, 14 in Melbourne and 2 in Sydney. Total annual turnover exceeded £14.5 million and net profit in Western Australia alone was more than £325,000 per annum. 

Expansion continued and by 1971 he had a 208 store-strong retail empire around the nation. In 1972 Wardle acquired a 55% share in a property investment company to finance property purchases and in early 1977 defaulted, triggering a financial collapse of the Tom the Cheap family companies. Receivers were appointed and by mid-1978 a dividend of five cents in the dollar was declared on debts which had by then ballooned to more than $9 million.

Tom Wardle was forced to walk away from the business and with his wife and died something of a recluse in 1997 and Lady Wardle died in 2005.

Tom the Cheap is just a memory now. This is the one on Goodwood Road (which I think is now a chemist shop). Photo thanks to ‘The Scooter Guys Favorites’ on Flickr Photoshare.

Tom the Cheap on Goodwood Road. Typical of the old picture theatres that Tom preferred as they were cheap to fit out

Tom the Cheap on Goodwood Road. Typical of the old picture theatres that Tom preferred as they were cheap to fit out

38 Responses to Tom the Cheap

  1. Angela butters September 13, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    I worked for them when I was 16.

    • Linda October 21, 2023 at 9:38 am #

      Does anyone have a photo of the Belair branch?d Is Goodwill now…

  2. Owen Conlon November 19, 2014 at 10:37 am #

    As a child my brother, sister and myself regularly went to the “pictures” matinee on Saturday afternoons at the Col. Light Gardens theatre on Goodwood Road, which later changed to a ten pin bowling alley, then to the Tom the Cheap supermarket which was featured in your blog.
    Later, in my working life, I prepared the advertisements for Tom the Cheap for the local Messenger, dealing with the receivers at the time.

  3. r.j.pickford July 17, 2015 at 12:16 am #

    Reason I googled tom the cheap is because we are about to give to charity a set of saucepans bought in Tom the cheap in perth in 1967 ! They are aluminium with coppered lids,still in perfect order ,no loose handles or knobs.I think we got good value for money.!!

  4. Jerry October 20, 2016 at 9:46 pm #

    Heh, I remember the old Tom the Cheap in Glenelg. The Checkered floors that were so old the tiles were coming up. I remember buying as a kid around the late 1970’s when my great aunts boyfriend got stuck with looking after me and so took me around to do the rounds of bill paying and shopping. I remember buying some dust old fly paper spirals you’d hang from the ceiling that more often than not got stuck in someones hair. He used to buy from that store(Glenelg) Big Red tomato soup that came out of the can in one solid can shaped formation and took a while for it to ;’melt’ in the saucepan before having to add one can of water or half water and half milk.

    I wonder if anyone knows when the Tom the Cheap store closed in Glenelg?

    Everyone remember the advert jingle for it on TV? Tom the cheap, bom,bom,bom! Which I think has been appropriated by Cheap as Chips with the sound of the ad music they’ve used for their ad.

    Does anyone remember the names of cheap discount stores that littered the suburbs with the names of ‘Half Case’ where the products was wheeled in on a slab and they just cut the boxes open?

    • Gail August 19, 2022 at 1:09 am #

      The original BiLo stores were where you bought a half slab of cans etc

  5. Karl June 25, 2017 at 9:48 pm #

    I remember a Tom The Cheap on Lower-North-East Road in the Campbelltown area just up the road from the Glynde corner. Just last year my mother showed me a hand-written recipe by my Oma ( paternal grandmother ) , placed on the back of an old ‘opening-day’ ad/flier for that very same Tom The Cheap store!

    If my memory serves me correctly, in the early 1970’s the sign on the front of the store included a cartoon like character in stripped clothing with a mask ( think cartoon burglar ).

    RJ Pickford: I never liked the tomato soups back then. They were too tinny for my taste, regardless whether mum had used water or milk to reconstitute them!

    Cheerful regards,

  6. jean mansfield June 26, 2017 at 7:41 pm #

    I tell everyone about tom the cheap all the time. I always say that back in those days there was egg cream shampoo or no tears shampoo.
    Not like now there is twenty shampoos and conditioners. I went to the one at Kurralta park South Australia. We used to load our groceries into a card board box. And bring the same box back each time. No plastic bags.

  7. Gyan December 21, 2017 at 9:24 am #

    I remember a Prosh Week stunt by Adelaide Uni students involving Tom the Cheap. The Anglican bishop of Adelaide at the time was Tom Reed. Students stole the Tom the Cheap sign from the front of the Nth Adelaide supermarket and using some steeplejacking skills suspended it between the two spires of St Peters cathedral.

  8. gibbo October 12, 2018 at 11:27 pm #

    I remember the Tom’s in Forbes on Marion rd. Nanna was always just popping down to Toms for cigs, bread, milk or something. I was very little but I still noticed they hired pretty young girls to work behind the counter.

  9. Tanja Buring December 26, 2018 at 4:07 pm #

    Was there a store in parafield gardens?

  10. K Day March 21, 2019 at 5:17 am #

    But didn’t they have the most irritating ads on TV (unless I’m getting mixed up with someone else)?
    “Where do ya get it?”

    • william cotter September 25, 2019 at 3:03 pm #

      K Day , the ad you mentioned ” Where do you get it ” was one of the first promos for the Foodland group of supermarkets . Being the proprietor of Para Vista Foodland in the mid 70`s I can attest to the success of this promotion . It was so annoying that customers were forever talking to me about how much they hated it but it made a big impression so it did its job and put Foodland in people`s consciousness.

    • Garry December 27, 2019 at 8:56 am #

      That was Tuckerbag ad’s

  11. Deb May 17, 2019 at 7:46 pm #

    Hi, Looking for any old employees that used to work at Tom the cheap in Kilkenny Adelaide and knew my sister Cheryl Clarke ( née Hill ) she’s having her 70 th birthday soon and trying to track down some of her old friends especially Josie Halse ( maiden name ) . Any information would be great thank you !!!

  12. Lyn Cartwright November 28, 2019 at 5:39 am #

    My mother and sister worked in Tom The Cheap in Port Adelaide for many years. It was an old picture theater on the corner of St Vincent Street and Ship Street. It burnt while it was still being used as Tom’s supermarket, it was rebuilt and continued as Tom’s supermarket until the stores were closed.

  13. brett April 17, 2020 at 2:19 pm #

    hi does any one remember, tom the cheap on prospect road kilburn

    • Annette P June 30, 2023 at 3:09 pm #

      YES, I grew up in Kilburn and remember my parents going there years ago whilst us kids sat in the car.

  14. Graeme Byass April 25, 2020 at 3:03 pm #

    My father Keith Byass joined Tom Wardle only months after opening his first store opposite the Charles Hotel in Charles St. North Perth. Dad was appointed General Manager of Tom The Cheap Grocers and from that time on was instrumental in opening all the stores throuout Western Australia. The stores policy was not to discount the recommended retail price the other stores of that time did but to add to the wholesale price only 10%. This caused huge stock problem for my father as manufacturers stopped supplies unless that policy was changed. Supply of cigarettes was the major problem and I can remember going with my father of a night knocking on the back door of corner stores picking up supplies of items that supply was refused. Some items were even sold cheaper than the purchase price. To open the Bunbury store Dad had to disguise the trucks taking the stock down because of a boycott by local traders and suppliers. Finally a break through came and suppliers started clambering for business. From WA Dad went to South Australia and there met a much liked local grocer who with Dads help opened up the first Tom The Cheap Grocer store. In later years that same grocer became the founder of Action Supermarkets. It was then off to Melbourne where the first store was opened in Elizabeth St. Later Sydney and Darwin but I am not sure about Brisbane. Tom the Cheap in the 50s and 60s was a big part of our families life as my Mum, Wife and myself worked in the business. I fitted out the very first Toms Other Store in Grand Prom Morley.

  15. SUE B June 17, 2020 at 10:50 am #

    I worked at Tom the Cheap in Morphett Vale, owned by the Tagnis that now own Harcourts in Aberfoyle Park

  16. Frank Cipriani June 26, 2020 at 11:23 am #

    I remember when I was a young kid in the ’70s helping my Mum with her shopping trolley when we use to go to Tom The Cheap at the cnr of Henley Beach Rd & Airport Rd, Brooklyn Park.It was a very popular shopping destination with the locals back then.There’s a Chinese restaurant there now.

  17. Kathleen Hayward July 7, 2020 at 7:40 pm #

    Does anyone remember Tom’s the Cheap in Salisbury North South Australia and where it was

    • Rick Costin February 11, 2021 at 10:16 pm #

      I recon there was one in Salisbury between Johns St and Wiltshire St, I don’t remember one in Salisbury North, my grand parents lived on Waterloo Corner Rd not far from the pub but if there was one it would have been on Bagster Rd. shopping centre near the oval

      • Raelene March 11, 2022 at 10:24 am #

        Definitely in Salisbury – adjacent Ascot Building, John Street, Salisbury. Knew it very very well.

  18. Fred Fairthorne (Jnr) September 20, 2020 at 11:53 am #

    My father Fred Fairthorne met Tom Wardle in the late 1950s. At the time Fred was working for DHA- a company who sold supermarket pharmaceuticals to Tom’s stores in Perth. When Fred was transferred to Adelaide in the early 60s he and Tom formed a partnership and opened the first 2 Tom the Cheap stores in Adelaide – located at Winston Ave ,Edwardstown and Findon Rd at Findon.
    Dad ran the store at Winston Ave and a lady called Thelma Dixon ran Findon. While he had sold to retailers all his working life Dad had never run a retail store- so Tom sent Keith Byass and Mrs Byass to Adelaide to teach him some of the detail. They came on a number of occasions and I can remember Dad saying how invaluable their help was. I was most interested to see Graeme Byas’s story and can remember – just like Graeme does – being with Dad when he bought cigarettes from the back door of delis- Tom’s stores were forced to do this because the big cigarette manufacturers refused to supply The price cutting Tom the Cheap Grocer.
    Tom himself visited 3 or 4 times a year- as kids my sisters and I couldn’t wait for him to arrive at our home for dinner- it was nearly as good as Christmas- Uncle Tom would bring us a box of chocolates each. He was very generous and we loved his visits.
    As time went on the successful WA formula began to get traction in SA and about 50 stores were opened in Adelaide. Dad was offered the opportunity of converting some suburban picture theatres to supermarkets. I can remember the family going to the beach in Adelaide and Dad drawing layout plans in the sand- trying to work out how to to turn a theatre into a supermarket.
    Tom expanded further into Melbourne and Sydney. After a couple of years Dad joined Tom in that venture and was away from home 2 to 3 days per week managing those businesses. At that time I think they operated about 75 stores in the eastern states. In 1973 Dad sold all his interests in Tom the Cheap Grocer to Tom.
    The family has continued to operate supermarkets (in Perth). They include Action Supermarkets, Newmart and currently Farmer Jacks. My father was a terrific operator and always acknowledged he was fortunate to have worked with so many wonderful people. And of course if he hadn’t met the visionary Sir Thomas Wardle my family may never have been in supermarkets at all. I will always be grateful for that opportunity.

    • Benito DiRosa September 19, 2021 at 11:48 am #

      Hi my father Nino and his partner Bob done work for your father. My father always said Fred was sharp as a razor, every shop in Adelaide and Victoria was fitted out by dad and Bob, think the butcher shops were Lazy Lamb. Cheer Ben

    • Karen Stephenson November 7, 2023 at 8:51 am #

      Hi Fred,
      My family moved to Adelaide from Sydney at the end of 1963/beginning of 1964 and initially rented a house in Portrush Road. My father, Harry Stephenson, was taking up a posting of General Manager with Kiwi and that would be how he met your father. Within what seemed to be a short period of time he had started working for Tom The Cheap (I think as manager of one of the main stores to start), and then became supervisor of many/all the SA stores.

      I’m not sure how many times my sister Jenny & I (about 7 & 8 years of age respectively when we arrived in Adelaide) visited your family home almost opposite us on Portrush Road with Mum (Elaine) but my memory is that your Mum, Judy, was warm & friendly and that your sisters were good fun!
      I think you were already in your teens and so probably weren’t with them when they took us for a ‘scarey’ trip to the nearby cemetery in the dark.

      I also remember a few years later my youngest sister Lise (born in 1965 a year after we arrived and I think maybe a couple of years younger than Audrey) sitting in a little red & white electric car with Tom the Cheap emblazoned on it.

      I’m sure Dad was never bored working for your Dad.

      I hope this finds you well.

      Karen Stephenson.

  19. Jim September 22, 2020 at 6:09 pm #

    I am less than a week away from celebrating my 72nd birthday, and have been writing down childhood memories that I hope younger members of my extended family will find interesting. From 1955 through to the mid-1970s we lived in a house on Angas Road, Westbourne Park, Adelaide. My local cinema when I was growing up during those years was the one pictured at the top of this article at Colonel Light Gardens. I well remember regular visits to the cinema for Saturday afternoon matinees with their weekly serials, B-movie Westerns, and other feature films, and was bitterly disappointed when the cinema shut down. And yes, the author is correct, the old cinema has for many years operated as a large chemist shop.

  20. Rick Costin February 11, 2021 at 10:05 pm #

    Remember shopping with mum at Tom the Cheap in Salisbury. 1970s

  21. Julie February 17, 2021 at 10:48 am #

    I was preserving the other day
    Opened a packet of preserving rubbers
    I was was unclear on how old they were … my son started investigating.. there was a price tag on them labeled TOM THE CHEAP
    bought back memories… and they were cheap and still good

  22. Deb April 24, 2021 at 1:43 pm #

    My first job when I left school. Tom the Cheap, Beach Road Christies Beach 1968 -1969.

  23. Philip Banks June 16, 2021 at 8:14 am #

    I worked at Tom the cheap prospect rd prospect from 1965 till 1966 after school and on Saturday pricing items with a thick pencil and putting down damp sawdust to keep the dust down while sweeping the floors. I think the manager was Mr Toohey

  24. Trish June 25, 2021 at 1:08 pm #

    I worked for Tom the Cheap at Alberton, SA after school and eventually on Saturday mornings. I started out by stocking shelves and worked my way up to Checkout Chick. The good old days.

  25. Cynthia H Perrin August 12, 2021 at 1:10 pm #

    I remember shopping with my Mother at the newly opened Tom the Cheap on Government Road (now South Road) Croydon. It was in 1962 and had replaced the Odeon Picture Theatre. I also remember Mum being over the moon with the total of her first shop which was something like fourteen shillings. Quite a bargain back then.

  26. Val August 19, 2021 at 6:03 pm #

    Was there one at Chester Hill, in Sydney across the road from Chester Hill primary school?

    • Jon Rolfe October 13, 2021 at 9:11 pm #

      Yes there was. In Wellington Rd just behind the Sundale Centre. Before that it was a movie theatre, and after Tom the Cheap it was a hardware store. It’s a block of units these days.

  27. J. Toovey July 11, 2023 at 10:20 am #

    l worked at Tom the cheap in Flinders Park , Thebarton @ Port Adelaide in the 1960’s. They had a light blue uniform with Tom the cheap advertiswd on it. No heating or cooling system You had to know the prices as you had to tell the customer how much each item was.Boy! at Easter, Christmas time the groceries flew down the chech ou, gou were exhausted by the end of the day. There was a large container to keep the empty boxes in for customers to to pack their own groceries. The design of the checkout was had a divider to slide back @ forth to divide customers groceries.Tom came @ met his workers in Adelaide @ l met him in person.. The Beatles arrived in Adelaide @ the manager let the staff go out side during workinv hours to see rhem drive by down the road from the airoort on the way into Adelaide, l was the only one to go out side saw the on who is still alive clearly, big white teeth @ dark black staight hair. Yeah!! l am 76. Still live in Adelaide.

  28. Linda October 21, 2023 at 9:37 am #

    Does anyone have a photo of the Belair branch? Is Goodwill now…

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