Abstract: The Paradox of Sameness in Diversity in the Modern American Supermarket

Laresh Jayasanker


After the 1960s, American supermarkets came to offer a much wider array of foods. At the same time they consolidated, so that in every major metropolitan area just a few chains dominated most of the market. Supermarkets then paradoxically offered greater diversity and greater homogeneity to consumers. This paper explores the political economy and cultural ramifications of that paradox. In 1960, the average supermarket carried 5,900 items, but by 1998 that number had grown to 40,333. Increased global trade and immigration made many more of these choices available, and supermarkets deliberately employed greater diversity in their product offerings after they decided that ethnic foods could be an avenue for growth. As supermarket chains offered more products, they also consolidated and grabbed larger regional market shares. One-stop shopping took hold, and by the end of the twentieth century, Americans typically bought most of their foods at one massive superstore. Food businesses plying their wares within American supermarkets also consolidated and homogenized. The tortilla industry was but one example. GRUMA, based in Mexico, used the United States as a foothold for massive expansion, meaning consumers in Mexico, the United States, and even China ate the same tortillas over time.