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Retail

How Carrefour Opened France's First Hypermarket, 60 Years Ago Today

By Steve Wynne-Jones
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How Carrefour Opened France's First Hypermarket, 60 Years Ago Today

On 15 June 1963, French retail – and indeed the European supermarket landscape – entered the 'modern age' with the opening of the first Carrefour hypermarket, in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, about 25 kilometres south of Paris.

Opening the 2,500 square metre store, in what was at the time a town of 36,000 inhabitants, was a risky move – as co-founder Marcel Fournier reportedly quipped at the time, "Tomorrow, either I'm rich or I'm ruined".

But Carrefour's new venture (the retailer itself having been established just five years previously) proved to be such an instant hit that the store had to close for a few hours on its opening day to be restocked.

An Industry First

It was an industry first for many reasons – offering self-service shopping; featuring everything from food to clothing to appliances under one roof (some 5,000 SKUs!); and boasting 450 parking spaces, it was surely a glimpse into the future, as news reports put it at the time.

Founders Marcel Fournier, Denis Defforey and his brother Jacques picked up the idea for the store on a 'retail safari' (at a time when retail safaris were unheard of) to Dayton, Ohio, organised by NCR.

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The premise behind that trip was to convince the French of the benefits of self-service, and therefore open up a new market for NCR's range of cash registers.

But the trio came back to France with more just a few pieces of hardware – as L'Express noted in 1993, they returned "full of new concepts. From now on, they knew that it was necessary to install the stores on the outskirts of cities and to bet on the rise of the car – no parking, no business. They believed in the need to practice self-service and stacking high to sell low. They discovered that merchandising is the future of commerce and that supermarkets must offer a pleasant atmosphere.

"In short, they were ready to try the adventure on a national scale."

A Retail Revolution

The opening of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois also kickstarted a revolution, born in France, but quickly spreading around Europe – as retail entered the era of the hypermarket. Carrefour opened its first big-box outlet in Belgium in the early 1970s, and didn't look back, spreading into Spain, Italy, and following the group's acquisition of Promodès in 1999, around the world.

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Carrefour still operates a hypermarket in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois – it now covers 8,400 square metres, and has parking for 900 cars – and is "the most beautiful store in the company," according to one-long term employee, speaking to BFMtv recently.

It is one of more than 2,200 hypermarkets across mainland France, covering around 12 million square metres of commercial space, and accounting for two out of every five euros spend in grocery retail.

The hypermarket channel has been going through a challenging period in recent years, with many retailers seeking to repurpose many of their vast spaces for other uses – but six decades on from their introduction, they still very much serve a purpose for many French consumers.

In fact, last October, Carrefour noted that its hypermarkets were enjoying a boost in sales (up 5% in the third quarter), with hard-pressed shoppers attracted by their discount profile.

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Happy birthday, Carrefour Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois!

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© 2023 European Supermarket Magazine – your source for the latest Retail news. Article by Stephen Wynne-Jones. Click subscribe to sign up to ESM: European Supermarket Magazine.

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