Carrefour: France’s leading retailer and pioneer in the world

Carrefour is a French company created in 1959 in Annecy, in the department of Haute-Savoie. Specialized in mass retailing, the company also became a pioneer of the hypermarket concept in 1963, and the European leader in 1997, thanks to its merger with the Promodès group. The famous French brand is also present in many countries, especially in South America and Asia. Through its hypermarkets, its supermarkets and its multiple sales areas, the Carrefour group also operates other brands such as Carrefour Bio, Carrefour City or Carrefour Express. The French brand has also developed in the hard-discount sector, under its DIA banners, as well as in services via its subsidiaries Carrefour Banque and Carrefour Voyages. In this article, we will retrace the history of this pioneering French retailer, while looking at its evolution over more than half a century and its international development strategy.

The history of the Carrefour brand

At the end of 1959, Marcel Fournier, owner of a large novelty store in Annecy, met the brothers Jacques and Denis Defforey, wholesalers in the Ain region. Marcel Fournier wanted to create a supermarket but he was beaten to the punch by Edouard Leclerc, an ambitious grocer from Landerneau who wanted to set up in Annecy. Faced with the refusal of central purchasing agencies to supply him, Marcel Fournier approached the Badin-Defforey brothers to supply the food products for his new 160 m² grocery store, located in the basement of his haberdashery. Following the success of his new business, the need for expansion was quickly felt and Marcel Fournier opened his first supermarket in June 1960, in association, commercially and financially, with the Badin-Defforey brothers. This new store then takes the name of “Carrefour”, name resulting from the contraction of its two financiers, Messrs Carret and Fournier. Following the success of the brand, a second supermarket with a surface area of 1,000 m² was opened in January 1963 in the town of Cran-Gevrier, a few kilometers from Annecy. In June 1963, Carrefour implements its concept of hypermarket by being inspired by the American economic model and opens its first large surface in the southern suburb of Paris, in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. The store clearly displays its commercial ambitions, namely large spaces, a wide choice of products, easy access and parking and low prices. With a commercial surface area of 2,500 m² and a parking lot of more than 400 m², the company is successfully responding to the mass consumption that is taking place in France. In 1964, Carrefour opens a supermarket in the city center of Villeurbanne and in 1966, a gigantic hypermarket of a surface of 10 000 m ² is born in Vénissieux, in the suburb of Lyon.

With its hypermarket concept, Carrefour responded to the mass consumption of the 1960s
With its hypermarket concept, Carrefour responded to the mass consumption of the 1960s

The development of the hypermarket concept

Between 1963 and 1985, the creators of the Carrefour brand will continue to develop the concept of hypermarket in order to impose itself on the sector of the large distribution. Concerned about the growth of their company, the founding members Fournier and Defforey became personally involved in the management. In 1967, they created a central purchasing unit called SAMOD to optimize the supply of stores. At the same time, new brands are opening in the cities of Chartres and Anglet. 1968 saw the opening of three new superstores and the number of locations increased from 1969 onwards with the opening of five hypermarkets in Bourges, Chambéry, Nevers, Grenoble and Mérignac. The same year, Carrefour opens its first point of sale outside France, in Belgium. One of the strong points of the company is its capacity of self-financing to ensure its commercial development: indeed, the volume of cache collected at the time of the passages in cash coupled with the deferred payment of the suppliers makes it possible Carrefour to develop, without having recourse to external investors. On June 16, 1970, the Carrefour group was listed on the stock exchange and also created a subsidiary for the distribution of fuels. However, and in order to fight against the grumbling of the small tradesmen who perceive in Carrefour a real economic threat, a law intended to limit the openings of stores is voted in 1973: it is the Royer law. The brand also continued its international development by establishing itself in Italy in 1972, in Spain in 1973 and in Brazil in 1975. In order to improve its sales margin, the French brand decided to create and sell its own products, which were considered more profitable. Since 1976, the French brand has been offering its customers “free products”, with sober packaging and a preferential price compared to branded products. In order to face the competition with other supermarket chains on free products, these products will finally take the name of private label and will be sold under the Carrefour brand. In 1981, the company launched its PASS payment card, allowing its customers to pay for their purchases in several monthly instalments. The company also continued its commercial development by launching its TEX line of clothing in 1982. Its insurance subsidiary was created in 1984 and Carrefour Vacances was created in 1991.

The Carrefour group and its international presence

In 1990, Michel Bon, former head of the Crédit Agricole bank, took over the management of the Carrefour group and transformed the family business into a large French company. In 1991, the company bought the Montlaur hypermarkets, which were in bankruptcy, and a few months later, the group acquired the 77 hypermarkets of the Euromarché brand. In 1992, Michel Bon was replaced by Daniel Bernard, former CEO of the German group Métro, who put an end to the group’s various holdings in other brands such as Castorama and But. The latter wants the national brand to focus on its core business, i.e. mass distribution. Under his leadership, the group established its supermarkets between 1993 and 1998 in South America, the Middle East and Asia. In 1998, the French brand bought Comptoirs modernes, owners of the Stoc stores, which enabled it to acquire nearly 500 supermarkets throughout France. In 1999, Carrefour and Promodès merged, allowing the group to become the second largest retailer in the world, behind the American giant Walmart.

The fruit and vegetable department of a Carrefour hypermarket in Spain
The fruit and vegetable department of a Carrefour hypermarket in Spain

Supermarkets and convenience stores

In 2014, the Carrefour Group took over more than 800 French stores from the Dia banner and from 2015, began renaming these convenience stores to Carrefour Contact, Carrefour City and Carrefour Express. At the same time, the brand is continuing to develop by opening its brand to small convenience stores and franchised stores belonging to independent operators. They are located in city centers and in the countryside and their commercial surface varies from 50 to 900 m². These establishments allow us to be omnipresent throughout France and to face up to competing brands such as Auchan, Aldi or Leclerc. In 2019, this local network represents nearly 7,200 stores under the Carrefour Bio, Carrefour City, Carrefour Contact, Carrefour Express and Carrefour Montagne banners.

The Carrefour group’s subsidiaries and services

In parallel to its activity as a leader in the retail sector, the Carrefour group has also diversified to offer more services to its customers. In 1980, the company launched Carrefour Banque and its famous PASS payment card, offering its customers the possibility of paying or deferring the payment of their purchases with the company. Today, the PASS card allows you to benefit from a consumer loan and the group’s subsidiary has become a major player in renewable credit. Carrefour Banque also offers different types of loans to finance a real estate purchase, work or a car and since 1984, insurance services around the house and the car, as well as provident contracts are proposed in order to reach a wider clientele. In 1990, the group created its first travel agency via its subsidiary Carrefour Voyages in Ivry-sur-Seine and in 2017, the network counts 158 agencies in mainland France, a call center and a website. To increase its digital development, the Carrefour group acquired the merchant sites “rue du commerce” and “top achat” in 2016, before selling “rue du commerce” to the Shoplnvest group, owner of the 3 Suisses chain, and “top achat” to the Internet computer giant “LDLC” in 2020. In 2016, Carrefour bought Croquette Land and Greenwize, the French leader in online organic food. In 2018, the retailer announced its partnership with Google in e-commmerce: Carrefour products will now be able to be ordered from Google Shooping and Google Assistant. Starting in 2018, Carrefour is rolling out its Drive concept by offering pickup of groceries previously ordered on its website. To date, more than 300 drives are available to the company’s customers throughout the country.

Since July 2017, Alexandre Bompard has been the new chairman and CEO of the Carrefour Group. His vision is as follows: Carrefour must become the global leader in the food transition for all. Responsible purchasing, reduction of waste, democratization of organic food… are now the new commitments of this group, which has become the world leader in mass distribution. History, strategy, points of sale… all the information is available on the website


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