The supermarket typically comprises meat, fresh produce, dairy, and baked goods departments, along with shelf space reserved for canned and packaged goods as well as for various non-food items such as household cleaners, pharmacy products and pet supplies. Most supermarkets also sell a variety of other household products that are consumed regularly, such as alcohol (where permitted),medicine, and clothes, and some stores sell a much wider range of non-food products.
The traditional suburban supermarket occupies a large amount of floor space, usually on a single level. It is usually situated near a residential area in order to be convenient to consumers. Its basic appeal is the availability of a broad selection of goods under a single roof, at relatively low prices.
In the early days of retailing, all products generally were fetched by an assistant from shelves behind the merchant’s counter while customers waited in front of the counter and indicated the items they wanted. Also, most foods and merchandise did not come in individually wrapped consumer-sized packages, so an assistant had to measure out and wrap the precise amount desired by the consumer. This also offered opportunities for social interaction: many regarded this style of shopping as “a social occasion” and would often “pause for conversations with the staff or other customers.” These practices were by nature very labor-intensive and therefore also quite expensive. The shopping process was slow, as the number of customers who could be attended to at one time be limited by the number of staff employed in the store.
The concept of a self-service grocery store was developed by the American entrepreneur Clarence Saunders and his Piggly Wiggly stores. His first store opened in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916. Saunders was awarded a number of patents for the ideas he incorporated into his stores. The stores were a financial success and Saunders began to offer franchises. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) was another successful early grocery store chain in Canada and the United States, and became common in North American cities in the 1920s. The general trend in retail since then has been to stock shelves at night so that customers, the following day, can obtain their own goods and bring them to the front of the store to pay for them. Although there is a higher risk of shoplifting, the costs of appropriate security measures ideally will be outweighed by reduced labor costs.
Early self-service grocery stores did not sell fresh meats or produce. Combination stores that sold perishable items were developed in the 1920s.
It has been determined that the first true supermarket in the United States was opened by a former Kroger employee, Michael J. Cullen, on August 4, 1930, inside a 6,000-square-foot (560 m2) former garage in Jamaica, Queens in New York City. The store, King Kullen, (inspired by the fictional character King Kong), operated under the slogan “Pile it high. Sell it low.” At the time of Cullen’s death in 1936, there were seventeen King Kullen stores in operation. Although Saunders had brought the world self-service, uniform stores and nationwide marketing, Cullen built on this idea by adding separate food departments, selling large volumes of food at discount prices and adding a parking lot.
Other established American grocery chains in the 1930s, such as Kroger and Safeway at first resisted Cullen’s idea, but eventually were forced to build their own supermarkets as the economy sank into the Great Depression, while consumers were becoming price-sensitive at a level never experienced before. Kroger took the idea one step further and pioneered the first supermarket surrounded on all four sides by a parking lot.
In the United Kingdom, self-service shopping took longer to become established. Even in 1947, there were just ten self-service shops in the country. In 1951, ex-US Navy sailor Patrick Galvani, son-in-law of Express Dairies chairman, made a pitch to the board to open a chain of supermarkets across the country. The UK’s first supermarket under the new Premier Supermarkets brand opened in Streatham, South London, taking ten times as much per week as the average British general store of the time. Other chains caught on, and after Galvani lost out to Tesco’s Jack Cohen in 1960 to buy the 212 Irwin’s chain, the sector underwent a large amount of consolidation, resulting in ‘the big four’ dominant UK retailers of today: Tesco, Asda (owned by Wal-Mart), Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.
In the 1950s, supermarkets frequently issued trading stamps as incentives to customers. Today, most chains issue store-specific “membership cards,” “club cards,” or “loyalty cards”. These typically enable the card holder to receive special members-only discounts on certain items when the credit card-like device is scanned at check-out.