Supermarkets in the United States are no longer places where people go just to buy groceries. They are places where shoppers can also enjoy a snack or even a hot meal. Some American supermarkets are actually competing with restaurants and fast food franchises.

For years, supermarkets have offered ready-to-eat salads, sandwiches, pizzas and a variety of other meals in their refrigerated sections. Some supermarkets have now gone a step further, opening cafes, restaurants and in-store kitchens with chefs preparing gourmet specialties. They are taking the advice of marketing experts who follow the latest trends in consumer lifestyles and who closely monitor public concerns about nutrition, health and food safety.

"Supermarkets used to be America's pantry and they've become America's kitchen," said Howard Solganik, an international food-marketing consultant in Dayton, Ohio. Mr. Solganik believes the trend toward ready-to-eat supermarket fare has been especially popular among middle and upper class consumers. He notes that when two or three people in the family are working full-time, they often do not have time to cook, and supermarkets are stepping in to meet that need.

"Supermarkets are adding more ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat food as a way of attracting customers," he said. "The fresh food is the way [they use] to differentiate themselves from other stores. You know, a box of food or a can of food is the same in every store and the only thing that is different is the price. The fresh food, whether it is ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat, is the big difference. And they can draw customers in by making food convenient for their customers to prepare."

Safeway, a national supermarket chain, ranks third on the Food Marketing Institute's list of the top 25 food retailers in America. Company spokesman Greg Muckle said Safeway stores now provide their customers with popular conveniences like Starbucks coffee shops.

"We do that simply because sometimes people are going to be in the store for an hour and so spending a lot of money, and they might want to have a cup of coffee while doing their shopping, or a snack of some sort," he said. "Also, a lot of times now people find Safeway close to their places of business, and by offering different options in the deli, people now can come to the Safeway as a lunch opportunity. We have salad bars, pizza, sushi, hot chicken and some other hot entrees." Piggly Wiggly, America's original self-service food retailer, opened its first store in 1916. The first "supermarket" to open was King Kullen Grocery Company in New York, in 1930. Since then, supermarkets have continued to evolve in response to social, economic and technological changes. Food marketing consultant Howard Solganik says supermarkets are trying to shed their old identities as bulk food distributors.

"For too long, they [supermarkets] did not see themselves as being concerned about the food in itself, but about how efficient they were at getting the food to the market," said Mr. Solganik. "The people who are winning the battle for a share of [the public's] stomach are the people who are becoming passionate about food, trying to deliver the best quality at very good prices."

Wegmans is another chain of supermarkets, based in America's Mid-Atlantic region. It has opened cafés in 35 of its 64 stores over the past decade. Jo Natale is the consumer service manager at the Wegmans in Rochester, New York. She says the stores now actively recruit culinary talents.

"Many of our stores have executive chefs who have worked in some of the finest restaurants and hotels in the country," said Ms. Natale. "They have brought to us a level of culinary expertise that really has allowed us to improve and offer restaurant-quality food to our customers."

In most Wegmans supermarkets, there is a cooking station in the center of the store where customers can watch their meals being prepared by top chefs. Ms. Natale says customers can also learn cooking skills and pick up new food recipes. "They can taste it, and all the ingredients are displayed right there in the station," added Ms. Natale. "So they can get everything they need to make that for dinner at night at home." Recipes are published not only in the store's magazine, which is mailed directly to customers' homes, but also on the store's Internet web site. Ms. Natale says the recipes have generated a lot of positive feedback, like a recent letter from one happy customer.

"She was telling us about a recipe she tried. She said: 'I'd just want to tell you I tried your recipe for braised short ribs and everyone in my family liked it so much. The meat was so tender, that I hardly had to chew it, my kid said. The whole house smelled wonderful and it was so relaxing to come home from a stressful day at work and know that dinner was ready whenever we want. I used the slow cooker version of the recipe.' This is an example of the kind of feedback we are getting from our customers," she said.

According to the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service, Americans spent $440 billion in grocery stores in 2001. That works out to an average weekly food bill of $36 per person, according to another survey last year by the Food Marketing Institute. Food shoppers interviewed at a local supermarket explained that spending some of that money on convenient, ready-to-eat meals makes sense, given their busy lifestyles.

One female customer said "... absolutely, when you take the time to prepare the food, it [the cost] actually comes out to be the same, because it is just me and just me. We come here and we have dinner or lunch. It is very convenient, very relaxing and it gives me a break from cooking. Every thing I find here is very healthy, nutritious and fresh." A male customer had another reason, "I like to come here and have the sushi. It is really, really nice," he said. Yet, another female customer put it differently, "Actually, I may prefer to cook myself at home, because I would know exactly what the ingredients are. But occasionally, if I do not have enough time after work and I am doing some shopping, I might grab some ready-made food," she said.

Even as the supermarket business expands its offerings, marketing consultant Howard Solganik said there is also a trend to downsize the stores themselves.

"Now, there is also a trend to develop smaller stores that are more convenient," he said. "Because when you start adding all these services, the store gets very big, 50,000 square feet or 60,000 square feet [around 4,600-square-meter or 5,500-square-meter] and to go in it and buy a gallon of milk and some bananas takes half an hour. So, there is a trend to look at smaller stores or large convenience stores, you could say."

As marketing surveys show, the U.S. population is not growing very fast. So the only way for supermarket chains to grow is by taking customers from other businesses, whether it's competing grocery stores, neighborhood restaurants or the local coffee bar. Today's supermarkets are now locked in a very tough battle not only to win new customers, but also to keep them happy and well-fed in their stores.