Traveling across the United States, you can find diversity in the landscape, in the food, in the way people talk.
And in the supermarkets.
Why isn’t the American grocery shopping experience as standardized as the American drugstore visit, or the American coffee stop?
It once was. In the 1930s, A&P (Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.) was not just America’s biggest grocery chain; it was the world’s largest retailer. With nearly 16,000 stores, A&P dominated the American shopping experience in a way that defies comparison. To give you an idea, there aren’t half that many Dunkin Donuts in the U.S. today (though the U.S. population has since doubled), and no supermarket chain – not even Walmart – has one-fifth the number of stores that A&P did at its peak.
To some extent, our highly fragmented supermarket landscape is a direct result of post-A&P development. The company adapted to the supermarket age, converting to bigger stores, but its strategy failed to keep up with changing settlement patterns during the birth of suburbia and the age of sprawl. Savvier, smaller, more flexible companies gained a foothold in regional markets, whittling away at A&P’s dominance as a series of poor business decisions sent the former titan towards bankruptcy.
Two things have happened in the intervening decades. First, a series of mergers produced mega-supermarket corporations that combine regional brands, such as Ahold, which owns Giant, Stop & Shop, and Peapod, or Safeway, which owns Vons and Dominick’s. The industry is still quite fragmented, but some of the storefront diversity is illusory.
Second, Walmart emerged as the second coming of A&P, swallowing up huge swaths of the grocery market with its low prices, large inventory, and one-stop shopping. Today, Walmart sells about 30 percent of the groceries in the U.S, and groceries make up more than half of the retail giant’s sales.
Locations of supermarkets in the U.S.
Maps courtesy of Nathan Yau at Flowing Data. Data via AggData.