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Wal-Mart’s new Price First brand recalls the starkly labeled groceries of ‘Lost,’ ‘Repo Man’

Price First is a private label line that Wal-Mart is testing in 400 stores nationwide. (Courtesy of My Private Brand)

A lot of people like to bash Wal-Mart for a lot of reasons. But finally, cool folks have something to love about the behemoth retailer. It’s where the mind-bending Dharma Initiative from “Lost” meets the cult film “Repo Man.”

Here’s the deal.

Wal-Mart is test marketing an extreme-value basic brand that may stir a sort of empty nostalgia in anyone familiar with the starkly labeled generic products of decades past. Those who have ever made a meal of government cheese or peanut butter (as I have) would find a worthy condiment in Wal-Mart’s new Price First “real mayonnaise” or “pure strawberry preserves.”

“It’s just kind of depressing to look at,” says Christopher Durham, a private brands expert whose blog broke the Price First news last week. He disapproves of its “ ’70s flashback design” and points out that the brand makes no claims of quality. “I don’t believe you have to be insulting to consumers to sell a product,” he says.

But wait! Into every suffocating, soul-sucking moment in life, a glimmer of post-modern meta-nostalgia must shine. In the Price First brand, some cineastes detect a clear nod to the 1984 dystopian comedy “Repo Man,” set in Los Angeles and directed by Alex Cox. Take a look at the supermarket scene, in which Emilio Estevez is price-stickering cans of “yellow cling sliced peaches.”

What’s the difference between Wal-Mart and Whole Foods? As the cost of living continues to climb, D.C. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie (D) talks about the importance of retailers paying a living wage in D.C. (The Washington Post)

Except for reversal of the colors, the new white-on-blue Wal-Mart packaging is very close to the movie items’ look. (And these were not props but real comestibles from the L.A. supermarket chain Ralphs, according to Sam McPheeters, who wrote an essay on the film.)

In the scene, Estevez’s stance against the indignity of low-wage oppression could be read as a Reagan generation cri de coeur that presages the movement that has been demanding, for example, that Wal-Mart and other big retailers pay a higher minimum wage.

Or maybe it’s just a great movie.

Durham, chief executive of a retail consultancy based in Omaha, noticed, too, that the Price First neo-generic approach resonates with another cult favorite, “Lost,” the now-defunct TV series. The Dharma Initiative was a hippie collective that wanted to create a new perfect world, but it ended up not so utopian. (So I am told; never saw it.) The Price First products look eerily like the unapologetically sans-serif-labeled foodstuffs of the Dharma Initiative.

Personally, as a veteran Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club shopper, I see no harm in going a step down to neo-generic. But as a marketing strategist, Durham is less convinced.

“There is nothing retro-cool about it, nothing hipster about it, nothing fun about it,” he says. “CVS’s brand, Just the Basics, you aren’t embarrassed to put it in your cart. . . . If someone comes to your house, you wouldn’t hide it.”

Wal-Mart confirmed the test-marketing. Customers in Alabama and Louisiana, among other states, are the first to try Price First.

“I can tell you that it is a private label, and it is in 400 stores,” Danit Marquardt, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said Wednesday. It’s focused on basic items, such as condiments, sugar, spaghetti and paper towels.

“I am not sure there is anything else to add,” she said.

Sigh. And we were hoping for an exegesis on post-ironic consumer-focused design theory.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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