Consumers in search of quality and authenticity in their cooking need look no further than their nearest Walmart, which in late October introduced a line of fine Italian products straight from the mother country that will enable all of those budding food cognoscentes to create a meal as good as, if not better than, their favorite Italian grandmother.
The line is called Sam's Choice Italia and features 40 products co-developed with the Italian Trade Agency. Own Brands Now recently connected to the executive who actually drove product development in partnership with the Italian trade group. His name is Stephen O'Brien and he has both a culinary and food-science background that he employed in his search for quality ingredients and quality products all at the right price for Walmart's consumer.
Own Brands Now: First, what brought you to Walmart and their own brand product development team?
Stephen O'Brien: [Private label] is something that has been part of our culture and part of who we are for some time now. I came to Walmart about [18 months] ago from a national brand where I worked on billion-dollar brands, to help build them, to help provide all the quality expectations that you expect to find in an icon. I came to Walmart specifically out of interest in the private brand program where we're really trying to establish quality as being a core tenet of what our private label program is, both in taste credentials but also in overall assortment. Understanding how do we meet customers where they are at their different levels of need, whether it be a different age group, a different family situation, even if it is what their food heritage is, and trying to understand how do we bring quality to them and really help them live better.
You hear that from a Walmart position from time to time, but that's really why I came to Walmart, to do things in a private brand program that are very similar to what you sometimes find in the national brands, but to do it in a way that is new and different and exciting.
As we have started this journey to reinvigorate quality, it's about culture as well. To say, how does Walmart do food? How do we approach quality and expectations that people derive out of food? ... My background is food science, so my job is to make sure the food is wholesome. But I also have a background in culinary, which focuses on the taste credentials and how do you make things in a way that really makes people smile.
OBN: What does the Sam's Club Italia line encompass today?
O'Brien: We've got 40 items that we've brought in; they're directly sourced from Italy. They are not just immolations of an Italian-style product; they're actually a traditional recipe and/or product directly from Italy itself.
OBN: Why is sourcing directly from Italy important?
O'Brien: When we begin to look at how to craft an assortment for consumers that they can both understand [from a quality perspective] as well as the wholesomeness of foods, we thought what better place to start than with Italy and Italian-sourced products. Italian flavors are [certainly] ethnic by their nature, however many of those flavors have been integrated into our lives and culture for some time. To reinvigorate the quality element for Italian-sourced fare, it's natural. It's something that people can appreciate very quickly.
OBN: What's included in the line?
O'Brien: There are a lot of different food items that are available in Italy, things that would make sense to the U.S. for our consumer, but we really wanted to focus on those things that were most relevant, so pasta, pasta sauces, pesto, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar even frozen pizzas.
OBN: What are the plans for the future? Will there be additional SKUs added to the Italia line?
O'Brien: Right now we have 40 products in 3,600 stores and we're really excited to see how that will develop and how consumers are interacting with those flavors, from the traditional, like a tomato-basil pasta, all the way to products that are not as traditional like a truffle risotto or mascarpone pasta sauce. That assortment is going to help us understand a lot about how consumers are interacting with these authentic flavors, and from there will help us understand how to continue to drive high-quality items to them. We do have plans to continue to grow this assortment.
OBN: What was the impetus for the line?
O'Brien: Primarily quality. As we have approached private brands in new and different ways the last few years, the primary focus has been on quality. How do we deliver quality to consumers at those low prices that Walmart is known for, but in a way they can understand and recognize that these products are actually going to help them live better. That has been the primary reason we're interested in going after and presenting Sam's Choice Italia line to the public. ... These [offerings] are definitely very much a value to the customer relative to the premium assortment they see in the national brands.
OBN: Why work with the Italian Trade Agency?
O'Brien: My passion is food. My passion is cooking for people and making them smile. I like to make sure things are wholesome, and so the Italian Trade Agency allowed me to do that. They connected me directly with chefs and product developers in Italy who knew how to do these items well. Italy has a long-standing culture and industry around food, and particularly around these items, these are products that are very traditional in their food culture. The Italian Trade Agency allowed me to very quickly connect with those product developers and chefs who knew the best recipes and formulas.
OBN: Are there other ethnic food opportunties going forward, such as South American or Indian, for example?
O'Brien: I would say we're focused on these 40 items we just launched. To be able to cull these 40 items together in less than a year is a pretty Hurculean effort for us. We're really excited to have just gone through that journey and to follow that up with additional items within the Sam's Choice Italia line. That's where our focus is right now, to breath life into this line and the quality it provides the customer.
OBN: What's the bottom line? What's the one message you would want to share with those in the own brand space?
O'Brien: The attention-getting element of this is Walmart's focus on quality. Walmart has focused on price for so long; it's a core tenet of who we are. But the fact that Walmart is now interested in focusing on quality and doing it in such a way that competitors may not have done it in the past, whether branded or unbranded, is the most exciting for me.