Notes From Italy

Why is it that AT&T didn’t get into the cellular phone business itself and, instead, wound up paying billions for another cellular phone company? It is not surprising really; in fact, it was predictable. We all become so conditioned to the way we do things that we find it hard to perceive other possible ways of operating. This is one reason that foreign travel is good for business. It gives an opportunity to see one’s own business in a new light.

I write from a villa in Tuscany, where my parents have gathered their children to help celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. We are here on vacation, but as with fruit men the world over, I can’t travel without stopping to inspect every fruit stand and supermarket I come across.

I think a great deal about 5 A Day here because, of course, the goal of that program is really to increase consumption to European levels. Yet the Italian population does not seem particularly health conscious. What might motivate their heavier consumption of produce? Here is a secret … it consistently tastes better. All around Italy, I have ordered and purchased fruit and I cannot seem to get a bad piece. Whereas in the U.S. a fair percentage of the fruit is tasteless, here, at least in the summer, such a problem is nonexistent.

Some of this is due to trade-offs: all the grapes are of the seeded varieties, for example, and would certainly fail in the U.S. Much of the advantage in taste is due to readily explainable factors. Italy is comparatively small, and the taste of the melons, for example, reminds me of some local Pennsylvania Amish melons I used to sell on Hunts Point. They were sweet and delicious and certainly wouldn’t have made a cross-country trip. Clearly, the problem is very different if one is trying to ship on a continental scale.

Still, the problem remains. If we don’t find a way of making sure that virtually every peach is sweet and delicious, it will be hard for 5 A Day to create the behavioral changes necessary to reach our consumption goals.

My visits to the supermarkets were revealing as well. The custom in Italy is for the produce department to include a stash of clear disposable gloves to be worn by customers when touching the bulk produce. It is an interesting perspective on food safety. Public attention in the U.S. is so focused on the role of farmer and packer – yet the most obvious opportunity for contamination of product is right on the retailer’s shelf.

Retailers tend to avoid much scrutiny because those who get sick as a result of produce contaminated by other consumers at retail is highly diffused. To tie an individual case here and there to a particular supermarket is almost impossible. Growers and packers do things in mass and so any illness is more easily traced. That doesn’t mean it is more common, though, and it is a decent bet that, in the U.S., more folks get sick every day from eating produce that has been handled by other consumers than do from grower/packer mishandling.

The boom in natural food supermarkets proves that many consumers are interested in the issue of wholesomeness. One wonders if some supermarket couldn’t create an edge itself by adopting the Italian glove system and put up signs that say, “Please don’t squeeze the tomatoes unless you are wearing the gloves”. Though some would resist the inconvenience, many might appreciate the more sanitary approach. It may well be a profit opportunity for some innovative retailer.

One can almost hear the fears that will be raised in staff meetings if retailers think of adopting another common Italian practice: self-weighing of produce. Each department is equipped with a scale, and the consumer weighs his or her own produce, then presses a button which illustrates the type of produce. The scale then generates a label with a price, which the consumer uses to seal the produce bag. Of course, there is nothing to stop the consumer from sneaking in an extra nectarine after the produce has been weighed. One wonders how often this happens in Italy. What would happen in the U.S.? I suppose many chains could adopt the practice without much increase in shrink. I don’t see the big urban chains, though, feeling comfortable with the practice.

It all gives one so much to think about. We are very lucky in the U.S. to have so much top technology and to be a real center where the whole world comes to learn about our practices. Businesspeople in, say, Australia, consider it an important part of their job to travel to the U.S. and Europe to catch the latest innovations. Few American businesspeople think that way.

That is probably to our disadvantage. Travel abroad doesn’t have to be in search of better ways or newer technologies. There is a benefit to be derived simply from seeing our familiar business in an unfamiliar setting. To see the world through a new prism is to see familiar things differently. This is the great wellspring of innovation and thus of creating profit opportunities for the future.