Monday, November 23, 2009

Great public-relations gimmick

If you ask French people what they were taught at school in the way of English, they'll often reply that they learned how to say "My tailor is rich". (I imagine that this anecdote stems from a widely-used textbook example.) Consequently, generations of French students have grown up believing that the English-speaking nations are full of wealthy tailors. For a student of the French language (who may not have ever heard of the tailoring profession), I would propose a similar sentence: "Mon supermarché est sympa", where sympa is short for sympathique, which could be translated as friendly. It's certainly true that the supermarket at Chatte, where I do most of my shopping (except—as I explained in my previous article—for stuff such as exotic rose bushes), is not only friendly but smart, too, at least from a public relations viewpoint. Look at the wall of portraits they've just installed in the vestibule of their entrance:

In the middle of the portraits, the big sign says "Thanks to all our local producers". Then, in case you didn't get the message that our friendly supermarket is thanking all its local producers, the expression "local producers" is repeated in red letters. Now, it's a fact that the 69 faces could well be those of local producers of all kinds of foodstuffs: meat, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, etc. But does the word "local" mean "in the nearby Dauphiné region"? Or could it maybe designate French, as opposed to non-French, producers? I regret that the supermarket has not gone one step further by actually identifying each individual, and indicating the commune in which he/she operates.

In any case, I noticed that this large wall of portraits has an immediate effect upon customers entering the supermarket. With few exceptions, people stop and scan through the portraits, no doubt searching for a familiar face. After all, in an agricultural region such as St-Marcellin, almost everybody knows a handful of farmers. The portraits have been expertly executed, no doubt by a talented photographer. Most faces are smiling, visibly happy, and shot against greenish backgrounds that evoke prairies, spring fields of fruit trees, gardens packed with ripe vegetables... A customer, encountering this wall and its intended message, has the inevitable reaction that he/she is about to step into a wonderland of delicious food products, akin to a Provençal market in summer. It's a great idea. And I hope this public-relations gimmick will make the supermarket and all these nice local producers as rich as English tailors.


  1. My wife, coming back from the same market as you, spoke to my about this "marketting campain". I understood the local products were also promoted in the store; and it is well so. The first conclusion I had about that is : suddently there is a general ask for local products and globally the knowledge of origine of products. Sure such campaigns are not made to educate, but only to follow the consumers' waitings.
    Today I wondering myself this wall of pictures and I have the same question as others, and you pointed it : are they real producers of our region ? or producers of France ? or maybe photogenic boys and girls paid to play as "farmers" during an afternoon and to falsely smile ?
    The "trut in the global market" seems to be also in crisis.
    G.M. (in french thinking !)

  2. I should explain to readers that Gilles is a neighbor who lives down in the village of Pont-en-Royans... which is why we might do our shopping in the same place.

    Late last night, there was an informative debate on TV about the evolution of the foodstuffs we've been eating at home in France over the last few decades. The most fascinating part of the discussion dealt with potatoes. I learned many interesting details:

    (a) These days, all potatoes sold in supermarkets have been washed. This means that any old potato can be made to look as if it's fresh out of the ground, in the category known in French as "new potatoes". But, of course, when they're cooked, they don't taste like fresh potatoes. I realize that I've often been tricked in that way.

    (b) Fast-food places receive pre-cooked frites (Gilles is Belgian, and it would be outrageous of me to use the American expression "French fries") that simply cannot be purchased in any supermarkets whatsoever. So, no matter how hard you try, you'll never succeed (?) in making frites in your home kitchen that taste like McDonald's stuff. Incidentally, the pre-cooking is responsible for the fact that fast-food frites are hollow.

    (c) In French supermarkets and vegetable shops, you can only find a narrow range of potato varieties, and they're not necessarily very tasty. There's a huge number of potato varieties, and those you find on the market represent only a tiny percentage of the possible varieties.

    (d) If you want to make top-quality frites at home, you need to find the right potatoes, and you also need, not one, but two electric fry pans. The first one gets the humidity out of the sliced potatoes... and this humidity means that your oil ends up containing a certain amount of water. The pure oil in the second fry pan actually cooks the frites brown and crispy.

    Conclusions. If you really want to eat top-quality potatoes today, the only solution is to either make friends with an imaginative local farmer, or grow your own. Personally, I'm thinking about adopting the second solution (I could plant potatoes in my rose garden), because I've become aware that it's worthwhile going to some trouble to obtain top-quality potatoes.