Beginning life as a small variety store based on the American 'five and dime' stores, Coles went on to become Australia's largest retailer. G.J. Coles & Co. Ltd was founded on 9 April 1914 when brothers George and Jim Coles opened their first 3d, 6d and 1s variety store in Smith Street, Collingwood. After Jim's death in World War I, George entered into a partnership with another brother, Arthur, and opened the first 'Nothing over 2s 6d' store. Their slogan 'Satisfaction guaranteed or money cheerfully refunded' met wide appeal and survives today.
George and Arthur were joined by other brothers, Edgar, Kenneth and Norman (eventually all five brothers were knighted). The chain succeeded by offering a standard range of drapery, crockery, kitchenware, hardware, stationery and haberdashery goods at fixed prices. Coles was able to offer cheaper prices by volume-buying, passing on discounts to their customers. During the 1930s Coles opened Australia's first in-store cafeterias and a visit to the Coles café became a popular family outing. The Coles Bourke Street flagship store built on the site of the Cole's (no relation) Book Arcade was opened in 1928 and traded until 1987.
The 1950s and 1960s were dubbed by the company 'The Takeover Era'. In Melbourne, the Mantons Bourke Street department store was acquired and became the huge Coles Store 200. By 1958 the chain had diversified into food retailing through the purchase of S.E. Dickens. In 1962, Coles launched its New World supermarkets, their realistic rocket models reflecting the prevailing climate of space exploration. Coles promised its customers a 'New World of Shopping', offering food and variety goods within the one store environment. During this era the company, led by Sir Edgar Coles, began a continuing interest in public relations and philanthropy. Its 'Monster Showbags' were bestsellers at both the Melbourne and Sydney shows. The Coles '£3,000 Question' (later $6000) quiz show publicised the company through television. Sir Edgar was also partly responsible for the launch of Melbourne's Moomba pageant and Coles' floats were often prize winners.
Further retail diversification occurred in 1969 with the opening of Australia's first Kmart discount department store in outer suburban Burwood, following Coles' partnership with America's S.S. Kresge. The Kmart chain became wholly Australian owned a decade later. Coles' largest takeover occurred in 1985 when it acquired the Myer Emporium Ltd. The merged company's name was changed to Coles Myer Ltd in 1986. By 2004, the Coles Myer group, Australia's largest retailer, had over 2000 outlets in Australia and New Zealand, over 450 000 shareholders and employed more than 165 000 staff.