In early January, on couches and La-Z-Boys across the Northeast, sluggish parents and grandparents get a beaming signal that the post-holiday lag time is over. A cartoon Frenchman with a pencil mustache and beret appears on TV, eyebrows twitching, and sings a familiar slogan, “Ooh la la, it’s the ShopRite Can Can sale.” Cabaret music follows, and the cartoon cancan dancers bounce, kick, and sing the jingle. Folks are roused from their chairs to attend what the regional grocer dubs “the world’s greatest sale.”
My Depression-reared grandfather was always tickled by the ads. He spent hours at the dining room table with the circulars spread out, planning his haul. For me, laying on the carpet, watching the commercial between football games, and then eating my grandmother’s spaghetti with meatballs made from newly stacked tomato sauce cans is something I associate with love and comfort. Now, when I shop the sale and fill my pantry at a low cost, I feel like I’m doing my job as a dad.
Last week, after returning home an hour late from a trip to ShopRite to get bananas and bread, not realizing the sale was in full swing, I tried to explain to my wife why I was late while stacking cans of tuna, garbanzos, and cannellini beans. I said, “We’re in the Can Can sale! Maybe you don’t know about that.” But apparently, she used to kick along with the cancan girls and try to recite the jingle in front of the TV in her home near Hartford, Connecticut, each year. Likewise, the next day, when I told my Westchester County, New York-based co-worker about the sale, he said, “I’m already making gravy. I’ll bring you some. My grandmother used to stock up every year. Did you get the Tuttarossas?” Indeed, I did get the Tuttarossas — 12 cans of whole peeled plum tomatoes for $10.
I always thought ShopRite and the Can Can sale were particular to the region where I grew up. It turns out my wife and coworker thought the same thing, likely because the memories bring you back, not just to your town, but to your kitchen surrounded by family. We were all wrong. The company started as a cooperative of struggling grocers in Newark, New Jersey. They founded Wakefern (now the largest grocery cooperative in the country) in 1946 and came up with the ShopRite brand of stores in 1951. Over time, the store’s footprint grew to include around 280 stores across six states.
The Can Can sale began in January 1971 — the start of a year of national economic crisis, and traditionally the slowest month at grocery stores. Since then, it has worked its way into the collective cultural consciousness of folks across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In 2016, an industry source told the trade publication Supermarket News, “Every new sales vice president of every competing chain that confronts the Can Can sale tries to understand it and find a way to combat it, but it’s difficult. It’s so well-understood by customers and well-ingrained with the vendors as well ... You can find ways to fight it, but what you don’t want to do is lose a lot of promotion and advertising dollars trying to outdo it.”
When the sale launched, it only included house-branded canned products, but from the beginning, commercials included cartoon women kicking in fishnets, garters, and heels to composer Jaques Offenbach’s “Infernal Gallop.” According to Supermarket News, the campaign was inspired by an ad executive’s trip to Paris.
There have been changes over the years. The sale has expanded to include national brands across several categories (pasta, beverages, and more). In the 1980s, commercials featured live actors portraying the cancan dancers and a sort of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec character; in 2002, the chain added a July Can Can sale, replacing the Moulin Rouge theme music with a riff on “Hot, Hot, Hot” and in 2018, it retired the cancan dancers from the commercial. Many suspected ShopRite changed the campaign to avoid objectifying women, especially since the dancers were removed during the height of the #MeToo movement. But ShopRite has denied this several times. ShopRite spokesperson Kathy O’Shea tells me, “ShopRite refreshes the creative from time to time with new animation and graphics for print and TV ads, but we always retain the classic Can Can theme song.”
Nowadays, the commercials more often include real customers or actors (sometimes in exercise gear) trying to keep up with the words to the jingle. And although the sale is almost as old (and iconic) as the Super Bowl, that jingle is the same:
“Now, ShopRite does the cancan
Selling lots of brands of vegetables in cans-cans.
For quality that you can trust,
For tasty corn, asparagus,
For peas and greens from gourmet dreams
And beets that beat all other treats!
The only vegetables you can
Compare with all the ShopRite brands
Are vegetables you pick yourself,
Instead of picking off our shelf.
NOW’S THE TIME TO
Ask yourself, “So, why pay more?”
NOW’S THE TIME TO
ShopRite now at ShopRite Store!
The sale ends this Saturday. Join your compatriots under the Can Can sign by the massive crates of haphazardly piled cans. Hum the tune that your parents and your parent’s parents once hummed while you shovel tins of tuna and clams into your cart. Or, if you miss it, look forward to July.
Mike Diago is a writer and social worker based in New York’s Hudson Valley.