Dec 132010
 

The first supermarkets in Italy were the product of a combination of American know-how and Italian improvisation. In her fascinating history of the Italian supermarket chain now known as Esselunga, Emanuela Scarpellini shows how the modern food retailer par excellance, the supermarket, was adapted to Italian social and political conditions in the 1960s.

The project was the result of a study of the International Basic Economy Corporation, itself the brainchild of American industrialist Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller wanted to promote the American business model abroad without giving handouts: thus the IBEC would start joint ventures inforeign countries, providing American know-how and managerial organization while leaving most of the logistical work to foreign personnel, who of course had better knowledge of the local business environment.In this case, IBEC provided 51% of the capital, whereas the rest of the startup money (and company stock) was from local investors.

Several modifications to the Americans’ original plan were crucial to the eventual success of the enterprise. First, the Italian investors vetoed the name proposed by the Americans for the chain of five supermarkets, Mercado. They insisted on an English name: Supermarket. The Italians also advocated a decor that was not too nice, in order to avoid scaring away working-class customers who might have been intimidated by a “rich-looking” store. The stores, despite their early success, also did not advertise for a long time, as Italians at the time perceived advertising as the last gasp of a business in trouble.

Most of the article deals with the opening not of the first five stores in Milan, but with the work required to expand into Florence’s retail market. Bureaucratic delays, union and shopkeeper association opposition, and political pressure were also successfully dealt with so that the opening days of all the Florence outlets were mobbed by curious Florentines. Low cost and quality products were the two pillars of a winning pitch to Italians, who had been heretofore used to shopping in small Mom&Pop stores.

Scarpellini, in listing the obstacles faced by the supermarkets managers, shows how what has been seen as an immutable international model, the supermarket, in reality had to change to establish a beachhead in Italy. (Emanuela Scarpellini, “Shopping American-Style: The Arrival of the Supermarket in Italy,” in Enterprise and Society, Vol.5 No. 4, 2004, pp.625-668)  ZN

Grazie a Gabriella Paiella per la segnalazione.

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