Three girls in bathing suits walk into the local A&P grocery store as Sammy, the nineteen-year-old narrator, rings up the groceries for a woman in her fifties he describes as " a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows." Sammy is distracted by the sight of them – first seeing a "chunky" girl wearing a green plaid suit and analyzing her tan – and he accidentally rings up a pack of crackers twice, causing the woman to complain and snort as he sorts things out. Sammy imagines that the woman has been watching cash registers for the past forty years, eager to find a mistake.
The girls in their bathing suits command attention with their sexual power, causing Sammy to make a mistake at work. Based on the appearance and actions of the woman who's sale he is ringing up (incorrectly), Sammy thinks he's got her pegged through and through, that he understands her inner life.
After the woman leaves, Sammy watches the girls walk down an aisle, and he describes each of them. There's the girl in green plaid, whose bathing suit looks new, and another girl with frizzed hair, a sunburn, and a long chin, who Sammy describes as the type of girl who other girls find "striking" but who they know won't truly make it. Finally, Sammy describes the girls' leader, a self-possessed girl of medium height who carries herself like some kind of queen, she walks deliberately and looks straight ahead while the others follow along more meekly. Sammy says that you never know how girls' minds work (and questions whether there's even a mind in there) but it seems that the leader talked the other two girls into coming into the shop in their bathing suits.
The girls continue to command Sammy's attention as they walk through the store. Even as he admits that he's not sure how girls' minds work (or, with casual sexism, whether they even have minds), he assumes that he knows the power structure between the three girls—two are sheep, and they follow around their brazen leader who asserts her individualism by flouting social norms.
Sammy continues to describe the leader, who wears a "dirty-pink" bathing suit with the straps down. The straps loop loosely around the tops of her arms, causing the suit to slip a little so that her tan-line shows around the rim of the bathing suit. Sammy admires the plane of her chest, describing it as "more than pretty." She also has oaky hair and a prim face, according to Sammy, and holds her head high.
The leader of the group continues to command Sammy's attention with her sexuality, emphasized by the way she allows her bathing suit to slip. She also continues to carry herself with confidence, in contrast to the other two girls.
Sammy continues to admire her, and he believes she can sense Sammy's and Stokesie's eyes on her, but she doesn't acknowledge them. Sammy watches her turn to confer with the other two girls as they walk down the aisle to the meat counter. He observes as "the fat one with the tan" considers a pack of cookies, and he watches the reactions of the store's other customers to the girls. The other store-goers notice the girls with surprise but return quickly to their own carts, and Sammy bets that someone could set off dynamite in the A&P without getting a reaction. A few women Sammy describes as "house-slaves in pin-curlers" glance back at the girls disapprovingly, however. As Sammy explains, seeing girls wearing bathing suits on a beach is one thing, but seeing them in an A&P grocery store is surprising.
The leader knows that the men in the store are watching her, but she pretends not to notice, and this dynamic gives her a certain power. Sammy also observes the reactions of the other customers with amusement and disdain. To Sammy, they represent complete social conformity, dulled to all outside stimulus. His reference to the housewives as "house-slaves" again shows he assumes he knows about their inner lives at home, where he imagines they cater to the rest of the family.
Stokesie, another clerk, also ogles the girls and jokes with Sammy. Only a few years older than Sammy, the twenty-two year old Stokesie already has a wife and two kids, and he aspires to manage the A&P one day. Sammy explains that the town is situated five minutes from a beach, and women usually put on shirts and shorts before coming into the store—and usually, these are older women with several children, so nobody really cares how they're dressed. According to Sammy, the town is north of Boston, and there are people living there who haven't seen the ocean in years.
Stokesie represents a kind of adulthood that Sammy is wary of, with few ambitions and the burden of family. However, despite these differences, Sammy admits that he and Stokesie are similar in a lot of ways. Stokesie, for instance, is equally distracted by the sight of the girls in bathing suits. At this moment the difference between being an adult and a youth seems like very little to Sammy, like it's just a biological matter of having kids.
The girls reach the meat counter and ask McMahon for something, and he points them in a direction before ogling them as they walk away. At this point, Sammy begins to feel a little sorry for the girls. He says, "Poor kids…they couldn't help it."
Sammy's comment that the girls couldn't help it suggests either (or both) that the girls were overcome by the need to attract male attention or that they would have attracted male attention no matter what they did or were wearing. He begins to feel sorry for the girls as he realizes that their sexuality represents not only power, but also vulnerability.
It's a quiet day at the store, and Sammy waits for the girls to come around the corner. As they appear with lead girl, whom Sammy now refers to as Queenie, still leading the way, she chooses between Sammy's and Stokesie's registers, but an elderly customer reaches Stokesie first. Queenie hands Sammy a jar of Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream for 49 cents and pulls a folded dollar bill from the cleavage in her top, which Sammy finds "so cute."
Sammy's response to Queenie pulling the money out of her cleavage also demonstrates both Queenie's sexual power over Sammy and Sammy's condescension towards the girl, since he responds by finding it "cute."
Lengel, the store's manager and a dreary Sunday school teacher, comes inside the A&P after haggling with a truck of cabbages on the lot and catches sight of the girls. He reprimands them, announcing that "this isn't the beach." Queenie blushes and explains that her mother told her to buy herring snacks, which immediately sets Sammy to imagining the type of high-class background Queenie comes from. Sammy imagines her parents throwing a fancy gathering with cocktails and herring snacks and mentally contrasts the image with his parents' parties, which involve lemonade and beer.
Lengel's appearance as a male authority figure who also represents the rules of society (especially as a Sunday school teacher) changes the power dynamic, causing Queenie to lose some of her self-possession for a moment, as she falls back on the protection of her parents by mentioning her mother and the herring snacks. The herring snacks, to Sammy, also emphasizes that Queenie comes from a higher class, distant to his own experience. Sammy's thoughts on this subject also give further meaning to his nickname for the girl, Queenie.
Lengel repeats that the store's not a beach, which strikes Sammy as funny and makes him smile. Lengel disapproves of Sammy's smile, but continues to focus on the girls, saying that they must be "decently dressed" before entering the store. Queenie, suddenly regaining her sense of place in relation to the store workers, replies that they are decent, to which Lengel responds that he doesn't want to argue and tells the girls to come into the store with their shoulders covered next time—it's store policy.
Lengel's accusation that the girls are being indecent implicitly blames the girls for the men's own sexual desires, but wraps that blame within the larger structures of social and religious norms. Queenie's defiant response is described as emerging directly from her sense of being higher-class, to being superior to the store workers. Lengel's response that he doesn't want to argue and that it's store policy seems like a kind of backing down. A moment ago he set himself up as the source of authority regarding what is decent. Now, challenged by Queenie, he casts himself as just the enforcer of store policy. In other words, he's just the messenger for the local rules of the store, which were made by someone else.
The store is quiet after this scene, with the customers nervously converging on Stokesie's lane. Lengel asks Sammy if he's rung up the purchase yet, and Sammy responds that he hasn't and rings it up absentmindedly. As the girls hurry out of the store, Sammy says, "I quit," in time for them to hear, but they continue out of the store, paying no attention.
Whenever Sammy thinks of the customers, he considers them with disdain, calling them "sheep"—here, for example, they have no idea how to respond to the disruption of their usual shopping routine. Although Sammy sacrifices himself in part to impress the girls, they pay him no attention—he's beneath their notice, perhaps because he's from a lower class.
Sammy informs Lengel that he didn't have to embarrass the girls, but Lengel replies that the girls were embarrassing the store. Sammy responds with a nonsense phrase—"Fiddle-de-do"—and pulls off his store uniform, leaving the apron and bowtie on the counter. Lengel tells Sammy that he doesn't want to do this to his parents and that he'll feel the repercussions of this for the rest of his life. Sammy has the sense that what Lengel is saying is true, but he continues to go through with quitting when he remembers how Lengel made Queenie blush.
Sammy sticks to his own ethical code and asserts his individualism by quitting. However, he's not entirely certain that he understands what he's doing (as evidenced by the nonsense phrase), which proves that inner lives are more complex than Sammy assumed they were throughout the story—he's not even sure he can understand his own feelings or motivations. Sammy also realizes at this point both his actions are going to hurt his parents and that there will be adult consequences, but pushed on by his personal (and idealized) sense ethics, he makes a youthful decision and quits anyway.
Sammy saunters outside in the white shirt his mother ironed for him the night before and looks around for the girls, but they're gone. Looking back through the windows into the A&P, Sammy can see that Lengel has taken his spot at the cash register. As he watches Lengel, whose back looks stiff "as if he'd just had an injection of iron," Sammy feels his stomach drop as he realizes how hard his future in the world is going to be.
By asserting his individualism, Sammy has lost his place in the system and is unsure what to do next. As he looks back at Lengel, however, he gets a sense of foreboding. He seems to see in Lengel the stiffness and anger that the world will present to any effort of his to assert his individuality, and at the same time the rigid sense of being caught that conforming to that society (in which he is working class) will force him.