The Market Debate, Part 2: Inside a French Supermarket

carrefour shopping carts grocery store

Where do you buy your food? If you live in France, there’s a good chance the answer is “Carrefour.”

Carrefour is the leading supermarket chain in France. Opened in 1958 by Marcel Fournier, Denis Defforey and Jacques Defforey, it has expanded into a multinational corporation with a revenue of €76.127 billion in 2012 (Carrefour Annual Report). In it’s first 20 years of existence Carrefour opened more than 2,000 stores, and today has locations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It is the fourth largest retail operator in the world behind Wal-Mart, Tesco, and Costco (Potter 2011). Directly influenced by the American retail giant, Carrefour replicated the American superstore model as well as its success. However in recent years Carrefour’s profits have remained stagnant due to a combination of increased competition, the global recession, and a growing distrust of industrial food.

The following video depicts a typical walk through one of Carrefour’s “hypermarkets”. These are combination department stores and grocers, featuring items that cover every part of the domestic sphere: furniture, home décor, appliances, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products, pet food, stationary, electronics, and of course foodstuffs. Carrefour’s current slogan is “Low in price… but high in trust (Les prix bas… La confiance en plus)”, a direct nod to the American consumer model of brand loyalty through consistency and low prices. See for yourself how Carrefour compares to the American model, and what it is like to shop in the store:

Like American supermarkets, Carrefour follows classic advertising techniques. Promotional displays like the Kinder tower at the store entrance are common and scattered throughout the store; large yellow signs advertising low prices are placed primarily near the entrance and checkout. At one point last year I remember seeing a glass box filled with live bees actively “making honey,” with jars of honey (obviously not produced in the store) stacked around the display. The store is organized by type, but has seemingly out of place displays of unrelated items peppered throughout in attempts to grab the impulse buyer’s attention – for example, cases of soda are displayed in a pyramid formation in the meat department. The “Carrefour” branded products are placed with the greatest prominence, at eye level or easy reach. When I walked through the chocolate aisle it took me almost a full minute to find the Lindt chocolate I wanted to purchase.

Carrefour is a place of artificiality, sales, sterility, and efficiency.

Shopping in Carrefour is an altogether overwhelming experience. The entire store feels artificial, sterile, and packaged. It reeks of marketing, advertising, and packaging. Instead of interacting with people and food, you are bombarded with colorful labels and forced to read packaging to figure out exactly what food you are getting. From far away it’s nearly impossible to tell the meat section from the cheese section. The lack of human interaction would be unnerving, if it weren’t so expected of a supermarket. The entire point of a supermarket is quick self-service, and this is evident in the way people seem determined to shop as though there is no one else around them. Customers push carts around each other without smiling, sometimes even bumping into each other without saying a word. There is a laser focus on food items and little to no interaction with the various store employees who are clearly not food professionals but retail workers, there to guard products instead of explain them. Carrefour is a place of artificiality, sales, sterility, and efficiency. I can buy food from all over the world there, although admittedly they do feature products of French origin (mainly due to French food laws, I suspect). It’s nice to have cheap staple items, out of season vegetables, and rare foodstuffs available to me almost every day of the week. But the experience is, overall, not a pleasant or educational one.

Carrefour foods

My takeaway at Carrefour

For the purpose of my investigation of different food distribution systems, I decided to purchase six food items from each essential category: a bread, a vegetable, a fruit, a dairy product, a protein, and a dessert item. I chose based on my preferences, cost, and what looked good that day. For my next post I will do the same, but at my local market. I came away from Carrefour with an enormous cut of beef, “boeuf a fondue,” which caught my eye in a sale bin by the entrance for only €6.87. It looked like a good candidate for a pot roast, but just one day later it developed a suspicious green spot, so it might not be viable…I’ll keep you posted on that one. For the vegetable I chose eggplant, which I enjoy and know is at the end of its season; accordingly, this one came from Spain, which has a warmer climate than France and probably still produces a few last eggplants for the season. The fruit was coconut (okay, I know this is a nut…but it was in the fruit section, so it counts?) simply because of the novelty – and it was only 99 cents! For dairy I chose Comté, a favorite French cheese of mine, but I could not find any varieties that were AOC, unpasteurized, and aged more than one year, all considerations in high quality Comté. In terms of bread, I was entirely unimpressed with the options. The Carrefour bread was all hard and stale; with so many high-quality boulangeries dotting the streets of Paris, I doubt many French citizens are getting their daily bread at Carrefour. There was an option to purchase a sliced loaf of Poilane levain bread, a well-known and respected Parisian bakery chain, so I decided on that rather than the disappointing Carrefour loaves. And finally, for my dessert item, the pistachio Lindt chocolate that took me way too long to find. My grand total for these six items at Carrefour was €16.90.

While this account of shopping in Carrefour may seem more on the negative side (and trust me, Carrefour is not something that gives me much pleasure, education, or cultural fulfillment) I do understand and appreciate its value and even necessity. It’s a blessing to have somewhere close and open in certain extenuating circumstances – for example, if you’ve just moved to Paris and have absolutely no food and need something quick (this really happened). Additionally, the cheap prices on staple pantry items and deals on everyday foods are an enormous help to anyone with financial hardship. Carrefour may not feature the highest quality goods or even showcase the regional specialties of France, but it provides a place for people to eat more for less. It serves a specific purpose in the community that is truly a blessing for those struggling financially, or even those burdened by time constraints of the high-pressure modern world. The fear of losing touch with regional specialties is real, but luckily the local market is still hanging on in France, and next week I will give you a look inside my local market and all the beautiful food it has to offer.

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