A Short History Of The (Zero-Waste) Supermarket

Before we dive into the history, it’s useful to know how a grocery shopper’s customer experience is designed:

  1. Shop branding (“high quality”, “eco-friendly”, “budget discounter”, etc.)
  2. Shop lay-out (single path / multi-path,  the placement of products)
  3. Product branding (“high quality”, “budget friendly”, “traditional”, “innovative”, etc.)
  4. Product pricing
  5. Product assortment (convenience store / full-range / local produce / oriental / hypermarket)
  6. Interaction with products (packaged / bulk / refill, shopping cart / basket)
  7. Interaction with employees (advice, courtesy)
  8. Interactions during check-out (cashier / self-scanner / self-check-out)
  9. Interactions during parking (car, bike)
  10. … leave a comment below if you have more suggestions

As you can see, designing an innovative supermarket involves complex choices.

With that in mind, we can roughly divide today’s (full-range) supermarkets into the following primary-focus-categories:

  • Assortment range / product branding
    • Regular Supermarket
    • Hypermarket (= supermarket + department store)
  • Low prices / low-budget branding
    • Discount Supermarket
    • Bulk Market / Shop (not common outside of the United States)
  • Foreign assortment (import)
    • Focused on products from certain continents / countries
    • Catering to people of certain ideologies / religions
  • Convenience
    • Convenience stores
    • Night Shops
    • Home Delivery
    • Mobile Supermarkets
  • Eco-friendliness / Health-focus
    • Organic grocery shop (health food store)
    • Organic supermarket (size of a regular supermarket)
    • Zero-waste shop / Packaging-free supermarket (usually small sized)

Of course, some shops fall into multiple categories…



So, how did all the above categories develop – and what’s next?

In 1910, New York City, rolling stores were introduced [source], from the idea of having lower overhead costs than non-mobile grocery shops. These were also common in rural areas, where grocery shops where located too far off.

Before 1915, over-the-counter grocery shops were common, in which the shop clerks brought (suggested) goods from shelves or storage towards the customers.

After 1915, grocery shops turned into self-service grocery shops, better known as supermarkets,  allowing customers to pick up items by themselves. The first self-service grocery shop was Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, United States.

In 1927, Dallas, Texas, USA, Joe C. Thompson, manager of a Southland Ice Company ice plant, started  selling milk, eggs, and bread (“convenience items”) from an ice dock on sundays and evenings, when the grocery stores were closed. These convenience stores were soon bundled together as a franchise named Tote’m Stores. (In 1945 the company became 7-Eleven, explained further down.)


Before the 1940s people bought small quantities of food from nearby shops, used small ice boxes, and had milk, eggs and meat delivered every few days [source]. In the United States, Domestic refrigerators weren’t common until after World War II, when people moved into new suburbs. And in Europe, it would take even longer for the fridge to catch on. In The Netherlands, for example,  it took until roughly 1970 for the majority of household to own one [source].


Between 1931 and 1933, in Portland, Oregon, USA, Fred Meyer developed the first hypermarket: a combination of a supermarket, pharmacy and clothing shop (and even more after 1933). (Walmart followed much later, in 1988, with their first “Supercenter” in Washington, Missouri, USA).

In 1937, one of the first shopping carts was introduced, after being invented by Sylvan Goldman, owner of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City, USA [source].

Also in 1937, A Piggly Wiggly spin-off, called Keedoozle, was created as a prototype for a semi-automated grocery shop. Customers were given a paper tape, in which they could punch holes to order products displayed behind glass windows. At the cashier operated check-out, the punched tape was used to A) mechanically calculate the total price and B) send the order to a manually operated supply room, from which the products were delivered via a conveyor belt. Keedoozle failed because the mechanisms weren’t efficient enough.

In 1945, United States, the Tote’m Stores convenience store franchise rebranded itself as 7-Eleven, reflecting its expanded, and unprecedented, opening times: 7AM (7:00) to 11PM (23:00).

Late 1950s, the American supermarket model, a bigger version of the self-service grocery shop, was brought to Europe by for example Delhaize (Belgium) and Tesco (UK).

In 1961, Belgium abolished a law that restricted the size of supermarkets, to which Grand Bazar responded by opening Europe’s first hypermarkets called SuperBazar. Carrefour followed in 1963 with their first hypermarket in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, France.

Around 1970, health food stores (organic/health-focused grocery shops) gained in popularity. In the Netherlands these were known as natuurwinkels (nature shops).

In 1974, the barcode and the barcode scanner were first introduced in a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, United States (source: The National Museum of American History).

Early 1980s, the first organic supermarkets were opened, such as Whole Foods (USA).

Also in the 1980s, self-service bulk shopping was (re)introduced, by for example Bulk Barn (Canada).

In 1995: the Dutch supermarket giant Albert Heijn and science institute TNO conducted self-scanning / self-checkout experiments with handheld scanners (source: Distrifood). Safeway (Wales, UK) followed shortly thereafter.


Between 2005 and 2014 the retail market of organic food in the EU doubled from €11.1 billion to €24 billion (source: Organic in Europe, 2016). In 2014, the average EU consumer spent around €47 on organic food. The United States has the world’s largest organic food market, which has been growing for many years. Sales grew 11% between 2014 and 2015,  to $43.3 billion (source: Organic Trade Association, 2016).


In 2007, The concept of a packaging-free shop, as an alternative to the supermarket, started to develop. The zero-waste and bring-your-own-container ideas lifted off into popularity. In these shops, food (and non-food) could be tapped from dispensers, or scooped from bulk bins. Pioneers of this movement were Unpackaged  (London, UK, 2007) and the Italian franchises Negozio Leggero (2009) and Effecorta (2009).

In 2014, zero-waste grocery shopping blew up in the popular media when Original Unverpackt (Berlin) launched its succesful crowdfunding campaign. Unverpackt Kiel opened in February of 2014 as Germany’s first packaging-free shop.

Also in 2014, some (European) organic grocery shops evolved into bigger organic supermarkets, look at for example the EkoPlaza franchise (Netherlands, since 2010).

In 2015 it became possible to scan articles using a smartphone app at some Albert Heijn (Netherlands) supermarkets. Between 2008 and 2016, the worldwide amount of  self-checkout devices grew from 92,600 to 468,500. (Sources: Statistic Brain [2016], LPM Insider [2006], Wikipedia).

September 2016,  Bulk Barn (Canada) started the “Reusable Container Program” in a selection of stores, as a pilot  to investigate the safety of letting customers use their own containers (sources: Citynews.ca [2016], Bulkbarn [2016]).

December 2016, Amazon opened the first test version of Amazon Go, an automatic check-out supermarket. Customers check-in using a smartphone. When they take a product from a rack, or place it back into the rack, the smartphone’s wireless NFC connection registers this. When leaving the shop, the customer’s bill is paid automatically through electronic banking. A supermarket for the internet of things?

February 24th, 2016Bulk Barn (Canada) expanded its “Reusable Container Program” to all of its stores (200+) across Canada. 

March 2017 (?), Wheelys launched the prototype of their no-check-out, no-personnel, AI driven, autonomously driving supermarket. In Shanghai and Sweden.

November 2017, Carrefour Market and Hypermarket started to allow customers to bring their own containers to package what they purchase at the ‘traditional food counters’ (butchery, fishmonger, delicatessen). Carrefour about the shopping process: “The person serving them alters the scales so as to exclude the weight of the container and affixes a price label in the same way as they would to classic plastic packaging.” At the same time, 16 Carrefour stores across Belgium started to test washable fabric bags for fruit and vegetables.




Keedoozle customers in the 1930s.
The lady is looking at products on display behind glass.
The gentleman is making an order by punching holes in his tape.
[source: Wikipedia – Keedoozle]


  1. Thank you for this, thank you for doing all of this! I love your site and your work is so valuable!

    • bepakt

      May 22, 2017 at 14:30

      I’m happy it’s appreciated. Working hard on expanding the site :). Best, Rutger

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