Five ways the UK differs from the US at the supermarket

* 4 min read

Kate Fischer, senior account director – creative, Sun Branding Solutions

A supermarket is a supermarket, wherever in the world you happen to be, right? Actually, a lot has changed in the last year and frequent trips my homeland – the US – remind me of the sometimes subtle, but often significant differences that throw light on the differences in shopping habits on each side of the pond.

Here’s my take on five elements that highlight just how different supermarket environments are – and how we all shop them

1. Size isn’t everything

Superstores are essentially an American development. But they’re far from being the only gig in town. Across the board in the US, there is more variety than the UK. The big two (Walmart and Kroger) command less than half (45%) of the market, whereas in the UK that figure rises significantly to 71% of market taken by ‘big four’ (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA and Morrisons).

So, in the US, if you live on the coasts or in a big city, supermarket size is similar to the UK, there are many small convenience stores, and lots of variety locally. In more central - and especially more rural - America, there are fewer, larger shops, and more truly gargantuan superstores. All this, no doubt, is due to simple logistical differences, but it also points to the diversity of the population in the States leading to a wider variety of tastes that even the big guys find difficult to satiate in one place.

2. Order, order

Aesthetically and organisationally, big American superstores can be thought to be more disorderly than British supermarkets. However, it’s important to compare like-for-like: a warehouse-like Walmart is never going to have the crisp layout of a small Waitrose, or be able to implement a consistent aesthetic like M&S’s ‘Summer of Flavour’. Yet some US shops such as Fresh Market, Publix, or Trader Joes have moved with the times when it comes to tighter and more orderly layouts. Even Walmart’s Neighborhood Markets give their UK counterparts something to think about. 

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Publix, or Trader Joes have moved with the times when it comes to tighter and more orderly layouts. Even Walmart’s Neighborhood Markets give their UK counterparts something to think about. 

3. Where less is more

British consumers used to favour simplicity of packaging design more than Americans. However, the gap is shortening and the US design tastes are swinging to be more natural and considered.

Compare, for example, Target’s old and new designs (credit The old design was utilitarian and tried to cram everything on the front. The new design is foodie, considered and screams good quality.


This trend is growing the US although big brands like Tropicana are still less confident rebranding in my homeland. The recent UK design is fresh, natural and has added wit to their designs, where the US design may still be feeling the pain of their redesign disaster in 2009.

It feels as if retailers are feeling a bit free to embrace less is more in America. 

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4. Online shopping

Partly due to the vast distances which determine much of the character of US supermarkets, many parts of the country lag when it comes to online grocery shopping. Traditionally, it has been difficult for online food sales to take off in the US to the extent they are in the UK.

With the recent acquisition of Wholefoods by Amazon, the online landscape is now an exciting place to ponder. The acquisition, from my view, is a work of genius and will undoubtedly bring exciting advancements in retail food sales.

5. Own-Label/Private Brand vs. Branded Design

Brands still retain a strong hold in the US, while in the UK, the popularity of own-label has grown expontentially over the last fifteen years. A growing 65% of UK shoppers believe own-label is as good as brands, supermarket own-labels generate more than half of UK grocery sales, and nearly 100% of fruit and vegetables sales.  

State-side, retailers are beginning to showcase their own-label brands, known as private brands, and some are making big waves in the last year. Walmart have re-designed their core food brand Great Value perhaps in response to what Target had done with their brand Pantry.

It will be interesting over the next year to keep an eye on the supermarket giants to see how the US battle for own label ensues. And with international awards like the Vertex award, it is exciting think about who is rewarded for excellent design.

However, great design isn’t only for the Target, Trader Joes, and Walmart. Giant Eagle is the 49th largest retailer in the US. Their award-winning design for Market District Appetizers could be straight from our very own M&S or Waitrose. The global race for great design to sell great products has begun and I for one am excited!