From humble beginnings as modest corner grocery stores, the world’s biggest supermarkets have evolved into mammoth entities, boasting vast global footprints and serving millions of customers every day.
Supermarkets have become pivotal in the retail landscape, not only due to their vast array of products but also because of the convenience and efficiency they offer. They have revolutionised the shopping experience, providing a one-stop destination for everything from fresh produce to household goods.
Indeed, their significance extends beyond mere consumerism. The world’s biggest supermarket chain and the pretenders to its throne are vital cogs in the global economy, influencing supply chains, employment, and even cultural trends.
Here are the contenders for the biggest supermarket in the world.
A Short History of Supermarkets
Before every town had a contender for the biggest supermarket in the world, the shopping experience was somewhat different. Customers would often go into a small grocery shop and the person behind the counter would fetch the things on the shopping list, one item at a time. The number of customers that could be served was entirely dependent on the number of staff in the shop. In addition to this slow, expensive and labour-intensive way of buying groceries, these shops were almost entirely limited to dry goods.
If you wanted fresh fruit and vegetables, you went to a greengrocer. If you wanted meat, you went to a butcher. If you wanted fish and bread, it meant a trip to a fishmonger and a bakery. But in 1916, the concept of the self-service supermarket was born, changing the way people did their grocery shopping forever.
The Piggly Wiggly Concept
American grocer Clarence Saunders is credited with developing the concept of the self-service supermarket that we recognise today. In September 1916, he opened his first Piggly Wiggly store at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee and in one fell swoop, he revolutionised the retail grocery industry.
In his store, customers would serve themselves, selecting products from open shelves and moving through defined aisles. This allowed customers to browse the store freely, pick out the items they wanted, and bring them to a counter at the front of the store. This approach not only streamlined the shopping process but also reduced labour costs and allowed for a wider variety of products to be displayed, accessed, and sold.
It’s also believed he pioneered the concept of a checkout with a cash register, prices on individual items, and the ubiquitous shopping trolley.
The success of Piggly Wiggly led to the widespread adoption of the self-service model in grocery stores and eventually in other retail sectors. The world’s largest supermarkets may be bigger than Piggly Wiggly on Jefferson, but the process and layout has changed little in over a century.
The Biggest Supermarket Chain in the World
Measuring the world’s biggest supermarket chain is a complex endeavour. For example, 7-Eleven features on a number of lists with approximately 80,000 locations around the world, but it’s a convenience store rather than a supermarket. The same goes for American chain Circle K (believed to have over 15,000 global locations). In addition, they can be ranked in a number of ways, including number of stores, number of employees, revenue, or market capitalisation (the value of the business as a whole). For the purposes of this article supermarkets will be ranked by number of locations.
Tesco | UK | Locations: Approx. 4,900
Tesco is the biggest supermarket in the UK with a national market share of around 28% and over 330,000 employees worldwide. It was founded in 1919 by Jack Cohen who took the initials of his tea supplier (Thomas Edward Stockwell) and the first two letters of his surname to create the company name. The first Tesco supermarket opened in Maldon in Essex in 1956. As well as the UK, the company has stores in a number of countries around the world.
Walmart | USA | Locations: Approx. 10,500
By revenue (over $600 billion) and number of employees (more than 2.3 million), Walmart is not just the biggest supermarket chain in the world, it’s the largest company in the world by revenue and the world’s largest private employer. However, by number of locations, it’s not the biggest supermarket in the world. Founded in 1962 by brothers James and Sam Walton, the company is headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, just a few miles from where the first shop opened.
Aldi | Germany | Locations: Approx. 12,000
Founded by brothers Theo and Karl Albrecht in 1946, Aldi, a portmanteau of Albrecht Diskont, is mainly European based, but does have a small presence in China. It also operates in the US with a sister brand called Trader Joe’s. With around 12,000 stores and approximately 275,000 employees, Aldi is a contender for the world’s biggest supermarket chain.
Carrefour | France | Locations: Approx. 13,000
The first shop opened in 1960 on a crossroads in southwestern France (carrefour is French for ‘crossroads’) and today it’s one of the largest retailers in the world by revenue – reaching approximately €81 billion in 2021. With around 320,000 employees, Carrefour is operational in over thirty countries around the world.
SPAR | The Netherlands | Locations: Approx. 13,900
Headquartered in Amsterdam, SPAR is one of the world’s largest supermarkets with over 400,000 employees. The chain was founded in 1932 by Adriaan van Well and the name, originally DESPAR, was a Dutch acronym for Door Eendrachtig Samenwerken Profiteren Allen Regelmatig which translates to ‘through united co-operation everyone profits equally’.
The Largest Supermarket in the World
The size of supermarkets varies quite dramatically around the world. In the UK for example, what would be considered a big supermarket would fall in the 30,000 – 50,000 square feet range (2,800 – 4,650 square metres). However, there are some exceptionally large supermarkets both in the UK and beyond.
One of the world’s largest supermarkets, and believed to be the largest shop in England by floor space, is Tesco in Walkden, Greater Manchester, at 185,500 square feet, or 17,230 square metres. Another Tesco, in Warrington, Cheshire is 140,000 square feet, or 13,000 square metres. The Sainsbury’s in Crayford, southeast London, which opened in 2010, measures over 100,000 square feet (9,300 square metres) and the Asda store in Milton Keynes is a similar size.
A contender for the largest supermarket in the world is in the USA. Jungle Jim’s International Market, in Fairfield, Ohio, with over 80,000 customers a week, measures around 200,000 square feet (18,580 square metres). As well as having one of America’s largest wine selections, it has live seafood tanks and a cooking school.
Walmart’s biggest supermarkets – known as supercentres – are also exceptionally big, averaging around 187,000 square feet, or approximately 17,375 square metres.
However, it was in 2008 that the biggest Walmart in the US, and a contender for the world’s biggest supermarket, was to open. The supercentre in Albany, New York measures a staggering 260,000 square feet (24,150 square metres) and covers two floors with specially designed escalators for shopping trolleys. By any standards, that’s a super-sized supermarket.
Shop Till You Drop: The World’s Largest Supermarkets
The largest supermarkets in the world are more than just places from where to get eggs, bread and milk. They’re emblematic of the evolution and innovation within the retail sector.
From Clarence Saunders’ pioneering self-service model to today’s sprawling emporiums, the world’s biggest supermarkets have transformed the way consumers interact with the retail environment. Their remarkable growth mirrors societal changes, reflecting shifts in consumer behaviour, technological advancements, and global economic trends.
The future of these supermarkets is poised to be as dynamic and influential as their past, continually shaping and reshaping the landscape of global retail.