Marketing “Extraordinary Italian Taste”
Any Italian cook will tell you the secret to great Italian cooking is fresh, quality ingredients. That said, most will also admit they prefer those fresh, quality ingredients to be Italian ingredients whenever possible.
For example, I can make pasta or pizza dough out of any good quality all-purpose flour, but I prefer “00” flour, what Italians call “doppio zero,” when I can get it. The problem is it's hard to get. I can buy it at Salumeria Italiana in Boston's North End and I can find it in Atlanta at the East 48th Street Market in Dunwoody. I can also order it online or I can use an acceptable substitute in the form of King Arthur's “Italian-Style” flour. But I can't just pick it up at my local grocery store or at Walmart. Oh, wait.....
Normally, I would prefer a root canal to grocery shopping at Walmart. Yeah, they're a few pennies cheaper on most things, but I generally find that the cost is simply not worth the aggravation. Once in awhile, though, if I've been driven by desperation through the doors of “Hell-Mart,” as my wife calls it, in search of something else, I will wander over to the grocery side to pick up a few things. You know, since I'm already there. And it was on one such recent occasion that I found myself in the baking product aisle standing slack jawed and staring at a bag of Antimo Caputo Chef's Flour, Tipo “00.” The same stuff I get at the specialty shops. The same stuff I order online. At Walmart. This is a mistake, right? A fluke? As it turns out, maybe not.
Italian Trade Association president Michele Scannavini and Walmart's vice-president of Dry Grocery, Silvia Kawas, recently inked a deal in Milan in which the two entities will work together developing a Walmart brand of imported Italian food products as part of a broader arrangement between the retail behemoth and Italy’s trade promotion agency to boost sales of Italian food and wines. Yes, friends, the same store that has previously sold you Great Value Parmesan-Flavored Cellulose Powder in a plastic can will now offer actual Parmigiano-Reggiano a few aisles over.
The Italian agency plans to bring Wallyworld execs to Italy for buying trips, allowing them to scope out authentic Italian food items they can stock on store shelves under the “Extraordinary Italian Taste” logo consumers will soon see popping up in Walmart's marketing material. The company says it will increase its purchases of Italian products by sixteen percent annually. This is seen as good news for small-to-mid-size Italian food producers who have not been able to break into the American market in the way that larger Italian companies, like De Cecco, have.
The trade group hopes that by boosting Italian food exports and sales of authentic Italian products to the United States, they can cut down on misleading “Italian sounding” food products that are not made in Italy and that cost Italian food makers billions of euros every year. And therein lies the problem as I see it with the new Walmart alliance: education and overcoming generations of conditioning.
Americans as a whole are not terribly savvy shoppers. Clever marketing has led many a consumer down a low quality path. Nowhere is this more true than with “Italian” food products. Purveyors of bottom shelf merchandise long ago figured out the whole “Italian mystique” thing and started slapping garbage in green, white, and red packaging and labeling it with names that end in vowels. Sure there are oddballs like me who actually read the labels, look for the DOP seals and symbols, and pay attention to the country of origin, but the overwhelming majority of American shoppers just see a vowel at the end of a made up Italian word and automatically think, “Okay, that's Italian.” What I'm saying is that consumers are so accustomed to seeing “Real Italian Flavor” and “Italian-Style” and “Made With Italian Ingredients” and other ubiquitous marketing pitches on the stuff they buy that I don't think Walmart's “Extraordinary Italian Taste” gimmick is going to have much impact. Especially if the real thing is going to cost more than the knock off.
Besides being uneducated shoppers, many Americans are penurious penny-pinchers who gravitate toward the “value” brands in stores because they are a nickel cheaper than the “premium” brands. People with large families and/or limited budgets have to shop this way, I suppose, but a lot of folks are just cheap. I know people who make way more money than I do who shop at bargain barns because they can buy “Craponi” spaghetti five pounds for a dollar. To people like that it's not going to matter if the item in question is a product of Parma, Italy or Parma, Ohio; they're gonna go for cheap.
If Walmart is going to succeed in this “Extraordinary Italian Taste” idea – and I hope they do – they're going to have to do more than slap pretty labels and stickers on stuff. Somebody's going to have to figure out a way to show historically cheap, uneducated shoppers that superior quality equals superior value even if it comes at a superior price. Take my flour find, for example. While I was dancing in the aisle clutching my three-pound bag of “00” for which I was more than willing to shell out about four bucks, there were a whole bunch of people reaching for five-pound bags of Great Value All-Purpose Flour, selling for less than three dollars, and wondering what I was getting so excited about. After all, flour is flour, right? Just like spaghetti is spaghetti. Why would anybody spend three-fifty a pound for DeCecco when they can buy a pound of store brand for less than two dollars? And why should anybody buy that olive oil with the little Italian seal on it for twenty bucks when they can buy a bottle of Violi for five? I mean, Violi's gotta be real Italian, too, right?
Good luck, Walmart. Buona fortuna, Agenzia ICE. I hope the initiative is dazzlingly successful. I look forward to seeing what produtti autentico italiano Walmart markets under its new label and how they fare against good ol' Great Value. It should be interesting.
So I guess now you can look for me in Walmart more often. I'll be the one there at two in the morning wearing a green, white, and red striped speedo and a tank top that says, “Vaffanculo is Italian For Have A Nice Day.”