Esselunga: An Italian Success Story

Esselunga is not only the first supermarket chain introduced in Italy, but it also represents an American dream came true.

Twelve years after the end of the Second World War, the American tycoon and politician Nelson Rockefeller, before becoming the governor of the State of New York, decided to invest his money in Italy and export the American way of selling drinks and food in large retail stores.

The rumor had already floated around in the richest circles of Saint Moritz, the Swiss ski resort where many Italian businessmen used to spend their long weekends. Among those, there were Guido Caprotti, coming from a family of textile industrialists operating near Monza, and Marco Brunelli, scion of a famed Milanese antique dealer who, taking advantage from his friendship with the Countess Laetitia Boncompagni, a close friend of Rockefeller, founded in April 1957 the joint-stock company “Supermarket Italiani”, introducing in Milan and in Italy — the homeland of good food — a new concept of retail.

Together with Guido and Marco, also Bernardo Caprotti, brother of the first, the Crespi family, owner of the Italian leading newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, and the quoted Countess, putative godmother of this Italian-American deal, took part to what would have become soon an iconic success story.

The first Supermarket was launched on November 27 in Milan, near Corso Buenos Aires. It was such a great event that the crowd was unmanageable and the police and several ambulances had to come over. After the early expansion in Lombardy, the Italian-American retail store chain opened five Supermarkets in Florence between 1961 and 1962. These two years will mark the turning-point for the company, as the Caprotti family acquired 51 percent of the shares held by Rockefeller, becoming so the majority shareholder of Supermarket Italiani. Since then, the company was led by the new CEO Bernardo Caprotti, the legendary “man of Esselunga” in the public imagination of the Italians.

Why the name Esselunga?

What makes Esselunga different from all other supermarket chains has always been the inventive and innovative, American-style marketing. Between the late ’60s and early ’70s, a brilliant advertising campaign identified the huge cost savings of the Esselunga products with a long letter prominently displayed on the sign outside the stores: until then, the Caprotti family brand was identifiable with the first letter S stretched above the writing “Supermarket”. It is precisely this long S that would give the name to Esselunga in Italian, triggering new marketing strategies that, from Milan, marched steadily across Italy.

The first historical Esselunga store opened in Milan, 1957.

Milan, oh yes. Beating heart of the Italian economy together with the entire Lombardy region, Esselunga targeted its brand and goods to the specific needs of Milanese people, usually known to be very busy at work and with less time to spend in the kitchen.

For the first time, Caprotti brought to the Italian tables new international products such as the American Sliced Bread, the French Cassoulet, the Plumcakes and the Jam “Hero” in single dose packages. Furthermore, with another marketing strategy targeted to the hundreds of thousands migrant workers from South Italy, Esselunga promoted in the opposite side of the country the culinary delights of southern regions, such as pasta “Orecchiette” from Apulia, “Gnocchetti” from Sardinia, “Mozzarella di bufala” from Campania and the “Boar sausage” from Lazio, helping the various migrant communities to feel at home, whilst at the same time allowing local people to taste different flavors.

This marketing strategy proved successful over time, to such an extent that Esselunga was amongst the first supermarkets in Italy to introduce ethnic food like Sushi, Noodles, Tofu, Nachos, Chili beans and Couscous on its shelves, becoming a reference even for the new foreign communities.

A healthy company

However, Esselunga is still a healthy company not just because it was pioneer in selling self-produced organic products, having its own brand, and introducing non-food sectors and online shopping, but also because its business model focused on quality products and visual aesthetics. That’s why it quickly became the fourth most profitable company in the European retail sector and Italy’s sixteenth largest company in terms of turnover. Last year, its net profit topped out at 305 million euros, while the number of employees — nearly 23 thousand today — and new stores is constantly growing. Together with its historical strongholds in Lombardy, Tuscany, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, Esselunga has now headed south and opened a new outlet in Rome.

The longtime owner and CEO Bernardo Caprotti died in September 2016, after speding his life making Esselunga leader in the Italian large-scale retail sector, and often colliding with both the too politicized trade unions and the unfair competition by other retail store chains. It is no coincidence that his testimony was collected in his book “Falce e Carrello. Le mani sulla spesa degli italiani” published in 2007. Anyway, Bernardo Caprotti was an authentic leader and a marketing genius, a figure immortalized in a short film by the famous Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore. In the wake of his death, Bernardo Caprotti left 67,5 percent of Esselunga to his daughter Marina and to his second wife Giuliana Albera, bequeathing 75 million in savings to his secretary Germana Chiodi.

Esselunga and the gangster Renato Vallanzasca

Even the most renowned Milanese criminal, Renato Vallanzasca, fell under the Esselunga spell. During the ’70s, golden age of his robbery gang, Vallanzasca stormed and robbed two Esselunga stores in Milan, one in Quarto Oggiaro and the other in Viale Monterosa, not too far from San Siro Stadium. This last heist happened on February 14, going down in history as the “Valentine’s robbery”. This episode had a deep meaning at the time, as Vallanzasca could be arrested for the first time in his long criminal career, for which he was sentenced four times to life imprisonment and to other 295 years in prison.

The first arrest of Renato Vallanzasca, on February 28, 1972.

Nevertheless, Renato Vallanzasca, a good-looking and mild-mannered bandit, obtained semi-liberty and a work release in 2010 until, on a hot evening of June 2014, he attempted to shoplift an Esselunga store in Milan once again, to steal two pairs of underwear and some gardening stuffs. He was then re-arrested and sentenced to other ten months in jail, likely causing the definitive loss of his detention’s benefits. As you can see, Esselunga is not just a succesful Italian supermarket chain, but also interesting and legendary stories within a story that deserve to be told in every age.