Sunday, June 7, 2009

Truth and Olive Oil

Folks in the trade know that a bottle of olive oil should be consumed within 18-24 months from the harvest date.  This can present a tough dilemma for the olive oil industry, particularly retailers.   At this moment, retail shelves are full of olive oils from the 2007 harvest (northern hemisphere). These olive oils are reaching their 18-month threshold.  Coincidentally, the 2008 harvest is now coming widely available.  Yogi Berra was quoted as saying, “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.”  What do we do with the 2007 stock on the shelves currently verses the 2008 harvest, which is naturally fresher and better?

Most estate olive oil producers appreciate the value of fresh is best by stating the harvest date or “Best to use by” date on the label.  In the retail and consumer world, it is too often ignored or not understood. Unfortunately, this is a disservice to consumers resulting in lost sales opportunity to the retail and olive oil industry. 

I contend that when a customer possesses the truth about harvest date and longevity of an open bottle consumption grows.  A six-month old open bottle will less likely be retained in the pantry.  Linking fresh is best to flavor and health benefits increases usage and sales.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve conducted hundreds of olive oil tastings and the biggest challenge is to overcome the consumer’s deer in the headlights stupor as they stare at a shelf of olive oil bottles.  When confused and uninformed, one usually buys the cheapest. Sadly, most consumers view extra virgin olive oils as a commodity. 

Education about fresh is best is a major differentiator from other seed oils and ordinary, or even adulterated, olive oils. Keeping the customer unaware and in the dark, which is never a wise strategy, is an impediment to growing olive oil consumption in the U.S.

What can we do with the old harvest on the shelves?  Here’s an option.  Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan has slashed the prices of their 2007 olive oils in half. Now, Having been a follower and customer of this famous deli for 10 years making business mistakes is not one of their habits.  Quality reigns supreme at Zingerman’s. 

Educating consumers about the importance of freshness provides an opportunity to create marketing events throughout the year. For example, the olive oils from the southern hemisphere become available at the height of the summer produce season. 

The evolution of other industries is worth considering. Professional sports first resisted televising their games for fear of losing fans in the seats.  People predicted the extinction of the movie theatre when the VCR entered the market.  The fan base for both has soared.  Professional sports and movies became more accessible growing the fan base to unimaginable heights.  Embracing a fresh is best strategy can grow olive oil consumption in the U.S.  If people understand that olive oil must be used within a certain timeframe, they will use and buy more. 

How’s this for a big hairy audacious goal?  In five years, double the consumption of olive oil in the U.S.  The strategy must be based on truth.


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