Growing Olive Oil Sales at Grocery
Entering my 15th year in the always precarious olive oil industry in America, I have determined that there are a few certainties that we in this category must accept and build upon if we expect to see growth. Unlike other trendy foods, olive oil is an ancient product dating back 4,000 years to Greece. As a staple of the respected Mediterranean Diet, it offers health benefits and food enhancements.
However, consumers’ lack of knowledge and fear of media hype due to mislabeling has led to a declining household penetration of only 39%. American consumption is also low, at less than 1 liter per person annually, whereas other countries, such as Italy, Spain and Greece, boast consumption rates of upwards of 22 liters per person per year.
Certainty 1: Olive oil as a food and category remains a mystery to both the trade category managers who buy for their stores and the consumers who shop in them.
How can we solve this? Trade buyers/category managers must take some formal olive oil tasting classes by reputable schools to ensure that they’re knowledgeable enough to make sound selections. Produce, meat, seafood and wine/beer buyers are all “experts” in their trade, and they typically have access to shoppers to help them with questions and choices. This isn’t always the case with center store buyers, or the grocery staff who work on the floor.
Certainty 2: Understanding how to taste/smell olive oil is vital for consumers to judge the olive oil they use.
Organoleptic (sensory) analysis is one of the two required legal evaluations for establishing and confirming olive oil grades. Consumers don’t have to become experts, however, to make basic quality determinations. We as consumers know how to pick fresh fish — clear eyes, no fishy smell, etc. — we know if we see a brownish piece of meat sitting in the meat case that it’s probably spoiled, and moldy produce is a turn-off that we shy away from.
I conducted more than 250 hours of consumer-facing olive oil tastings in 2019 in the Southeast at stores, events, my farmers market stand and my mobile olive oil truck. What I learned is that there are two types of consumers: those not interested in the product or putting oil in their mouth, and aspiring foodies, including most Millennials, who travel, like to cook, desire the health benefits of using extra-virgin olive oil, and are learning on the fly how to smell and taste the product for home and restaurant applications. My success rate — conversion from a sampler to a purchaser of the brands for which I was holding tastings — was 80%, or eight out of 10.
Certainty 3: If the olive oil industry — growers, producers, bottlers, marketers — and resellers don’t take a more proactive approach to category messaging, usage reductions, the race to the bottom on pricing and promotions, the dumbing down of quality, and truth in labeling, there won’t be a stabilization of the olive oil category and the better-quality brands will likely move away from selling in the United States.
Terms like sustainability, traceability, blockchain, award-wining and fresh, are all on trend, but the olive oil industry needs to work together to finalize the Standards of Identity within the FDA and then build consumer-focused promotional activity to enhance awareness of this item, like the Got Milk? and Where’s the Beef? campaigns did for their respective industries.
Today, the industry is fractured, with multiple associations hewing to separate agendas, which include differing views of evaluation of quality and grades, imports versus domestic production, and even tariffs imposed to penalize Spanish bottled oil. It’s all too chaotic.
Spurred by education for both the trade and consumers, olive oil could be as respected as organic foods now are, with the industry all working together to ensure that the consumer has access to a wide range of properly labeled, appropriately priced extra-virgin olive oil, which they can open and taste to confirm that they purchased what they meant to.