Monday, November 24, 2008

Spurious Spam Savings

Coming soon to a lunchbox or pantry near you... SPAM!

I mean the original Spam, of course: the canned, spiced ham produced by Hormel that was the origin of the name for unwanted email. Sure enough, stories about how frugal people want economical products, ones that smack of comfort, home, and tradition, are starting to pop up. While I expected a whole new emphasis on “comfort foods,” I have to admit, Spam was not what I was imagining.

Andrew Martin of the New York Times reports that Spam sales are up because, as he suggests, it is “the emblematic hard times food in the American pantry.” Indeed, the cultural resonance is probably strong for a whole swath of consumers, regardless of whether or not they have ever been through an economic downturn. Spam is the ultimate brand, one with history, kitsch, family lore, and practical use. Martin suggests:
Even as consumers are cutting back on all sorts of goods, Spam is among a select group of thrifty grocery items that are selling steadily.

Pancake mixes and instant potatoes are booming. So are vitamins, fruit and vegetable preservatives and beer, according to data from October compiled by Information Resources, a market research firm.

“We’ve seen a double-digit increase in the sale of rice and beans,” said Teena Massingill, spokeswoman for the Safeway grocery chain, in an e-mail message. “They’re real belly fillers.”

Kraft Foods said recently that some of its value-oriented products like macaroni and cheese, Jell-O and Kool-Aid were experiencing robust growth. And sales are still growing, if not booming, for Velveeta, a Kraft product that bears the same passing resemblance to cheese as Spam bears to ham.
There’s a bit of mixed logic going on here, though. Despite their appearance as discount foods, products like instant potatoes and Spam are not cheaper than the “real thing.” Food researchers doing recent price comparisons note that Spam averaged $3.20 a pound, whereas boneless chuck roast and spiral cut ham were selling at $1.99 in the average Texas grocery store (as of last week). As dieticians routinely like to point out, a bag of potatoes lasts longer and is cheaper than the kind in the box. On the other hand, rice and beans make the most economical, nutritious, and inexpensive meal around (and they're tasty, too).

Spam in particular is not a simple "hard times" food. In Hawaii, it is a staple item, cooked in a variety of ways (including something that looks like sushi).  Based on her research there, culinary historian Rachel Lauden provides a great Defense of Spam. For the truly upscale, there's even this great example of spam sushi in a bento box (the japanese version of lunchbox that is catching on in American upper middle class households) Jell-O is also an iconic American food, morphing from molded salads into a jiggly kids' dessert. Spam, Jell-O, Kool-Aid, and Velveeta all have a kitsch factor, a reference to the 1950s, when processed foods (and the marketing behind them) reigned. As historian Laura Shapiro has pointed out, some of these foods become iconic to America (like the frozen green bean casserole topped with canned mushroom soup and french fried onions that will appear on many Thanksgiving tables this year, regardless of people's everyday commitment to the new, the regional, and the fresh). While other "food logics" may have taken hold in households across the US, these "cultural needs" will emerge more when the populace feels unsettled.

The retail marketing and sales lesson here is that people may be aiming for the economical, but they’re reaching it through a set of cultural beliefs that might not be the most direct route to savings. Certain brands that have a cultural history, associations of comfort and familiarity, and the sense that they are economical (regardless of reality) – still have a toehold in the current marketplace.

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