Blog post

Self-service: a short history of supermarkets

Supermarkets have been the main way we shop for groceries in Europe since the 1950s, giving us more freedom by allowing us customers to choose our products.

Europeana Foundation

When you last visited the supermarket, did you notice who was working there and what they did?

Most likely, there was someone at the cash desk whom you paid. Perhaps there were some people stocking the shelves, ensuring fresh and plentiful produce to buy. Perhaps too there were people selling or serving fresh produce - a butcher, fishmonger or baker?

There was once a time, when grocery shopping, that customers asked shopkeepers for each item to be fetched from the shelves. Many products were measured and weighed for the customer’s wishes, as goods were not individually wrapped or packaged. This made shopping a slower process, and, as more staff were involved, more expensive.

Supermarkets have existed in Europe since the 1950s. In the early half of the 20th century, various self-service store models began emerging in the United States, which in turn moved to Europe.

Tesco in the United Kingdom, Delhaize in Belgium, Carrefour in France and Spar from the Netherlands are among the early examples. Existing organisations changed their store models to self-service supermarkets.

As consumer-culture and car ownership grew through the 1950s and 1960s, so too did the model of supermarkets - increasingly to larger self-service all-purpose super-stores that shoppers drive to on the edges of towns and cities.

Today, supermarkets are arguably the main way we do our grocery shopping in Europe. 

Supermarkets gave us more freedom, allowing us customers to choose our products, and, by or large, keep these private without the whole store hearing our choices.

Increasingly stores offer services beyond groceries: for example, banking, post offices, alcohol sales, clothing.

Supermarket brands have become multinational brands operating in many countries. This has led to criticism of supermarkets as a business model. Their interactions with suppliers, the necessity to have additional packaging as well as their food waste from their product distribution models can be questioned from environmental and ethical standpoints.

In supermarkets, we find lots of regional variety and differences. Many of us know the feeling of 'exploring' a supermarket in a foreign country - finding new products and brands we’ve never seen before. And also discovering familiar similarities - brands sold across several European countries.

Next time you are grocery shopping, perhaps you’ll remember this blog. For while we tend to think of culture as being about great works of art, hopefully this shows that cultural heritage can be found in everyday places such as the supermarket.

By Adrian Murphy, Europeana Foundation

Feature image: Supermarket Sant Ponç, Narcís Sans Prats, Ajuntament de Girona, CC BY-NC-ND

social history industrial heritage working lives supermarkets Europeana