Girl-watching is what sets “A&P” in motion, and Sammy provides copious details of the three girls as he watches them walk around the store. Sammy describes each of the girls in turn, noticing the details of their bathing suits, their hairstyles, and their bodies. His interest is explicitly sexual. Sammy appraises the first friend’s “can” and almost becomes faint over Queenie’s breasts. He notices the varied shades of their skin and even analyzes Queenie’s gait. Such detailed observations suggest the extent of Sammy’s rapturous appreciation of beauty as well as the underlying aggression in the male gaze. Sammy’s girl-watching leads to both a warm, imaginative interest in the object of his desire and a darker, more possessive feeling (at one point, Sammy refers to “my girls”). In the end, any possession of the girls Sammy has experienced is revealed to be an illusion. He has watched them, and that is all.
Brand names appear throughout “A&P,” setting the story firmly in the postwar period of American prosperity, when a flood of consumer goods hit the markets and advertising became a pervasive force. Updike tries to capture the sense of plenitude in a well-stocked market by referring to “the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle.” But he also tries to convey some of the artificiality inherent in an environment dominated by marketing and branding by focusing on the cheesy labels on all the merchandise. He repeatedly invokes the brand names: Hiho crackers, Diet Delight peaches, Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream, and so on. They are all unified under the A&P logo and surrounded by cars such as the Ford Falcon. For better or worse, brands and labels are an important part of the cultural landscape, and their artificiality is one of the things against which Sammy ultimately rebels.