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LIVING IN ITALY

Why the tabaccheria is essential to life in Italy – even if you don’t smoke

A cornerstone of Italian culture, the tabaccheria is used for much more than just buying cigarettes. From paying bills to purchasing bus tickets, here are just some of the services offered at the tobacconist's.

A tobacco seller wearing a face mask is pictured at his counter on March 23, 2020 in the Prati district of Rome, during the COVID-19 new coronavirus pandemic.
A tobacconist wearing a face mask is pictured at his counter on March 23rd, 2020 in the Prati district of Rome, during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

Italy’s tabaccherie, or as they’re more informally known, tabaccai (tobacco shops) have long been a place for more than just purchasing cigarettes.

Their iconic emblem of a large T on a small rectangle, found in any Italian city, town and village, is associated with a place for locals to buy bus and metro tickets, pay their bills, or play the lottery.

READ ALSO: Beat the queues: 19 bits of Italian bureaucracy you can do online

With the number of smokers gradually falling in Italy (despite the pandemic reportedly acting as a setback for many former smokers), these non-tobacco related sides of the tabaccaio have become even more important to tabaccai owners’ incomes. 

So what exactly can you do in a tabaccheria in Italy? 

Buy bus and metro tickets

Outside of a metro station, the tabaccaio is one of the few places where you can buy tickets for local public transport in Italy.

The vast majority of tabaccai sell these tickets, and you’ll pay no more than you would at the metro station – just ask the cashier for biglietti per i mezzi (public transport tickets).

Pay bills

If you’re daunted by the prospect of navigating your way around an Italian phone or utility company’s website and don’t fancy waiting in a long queue at the post office (the other in-person alternative) during its limited hours of operation to pay your bills, then the tabaccheria is for you.

Most utility bills, including gas, electricity, water, can be paid at a tabaccaio, as can phone bills. For larger sums, you’ll typically pay a surcharge of €1 or €2 that goes to the tobacconist for handling the payment – which many find is well worth the added convenience.

READ ALSO: Rising energy prices: How to save money on your bills in Italy

Just bring your bill with you and the tobacconist will handle the rest. Most tabaccai accept either cash or card for these payments.

The display counter at a tabaccheria in Rome.

The display counter at a tabaccheria in Rome. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Pay fines and taxes

Much like bills, fines for things such as traffic violations and parking tickets can be paid at tabaccai. Social security (INPS) contributions, and some other government charges such as waste tax (tassa sui rifiuti) can also be paid here.

You can buy a marca da bollo, or tax stamp at many (but not all) tabaccai. As a foreigner in Italy applying for things like residency permits and work visas, you’ll quickly become familiar with this term, as a marca da bollo is required for most official government applications.

READ ALSO: Living in Italy: Six essential articles to read

Top up your phone credit

If you’re on a pay-as-you-go Italian phone contract, you can easily top up your credit at a tabaccheria by purchasing a scratch card. The cards come in values of €5, €10, €15, or €20.

If you’re on a fixed rate month-to-month contract of any amount, you can also top up your credit by telling the cashier your phone number and the sum you need to pay.

Play the lottery and place bets

Playing the lottery is a popular pastime in Italy, and if you want to try your luck by buying a lottery ticket, the tabaccaio is the place to head.

Some tabaccai also have slot machines, and some let you place sports bets. Betting in the totocalcio, the Italian football pools, is a particular favourite of Italian football fans.

A man casts his lottery ticket at a shop in Naples.

A man casts his lottery ticket at a shop in Naples. Photo by ROBERTA BASILE / AFP.

Buy tickets for sports games and concerts

If you want a ticket for the next Roma-Lazio derby, look no further than your local tabaccheria.

Tobacconists in Italy are licensed to sell tickets for football matches, as well as for certain concerts and other large-scale stadium events.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

…Buy cigarettes and tobacco

It’s no secret that you can buy cigarettes and other tobacco products at a tabaccheria. In fact, it’s one of the only places in Italy where you can buy them, as (along with lottery tickets, stamps and tax stamps) these are state-controlled goods that require a special license to sell.

Oddly enough, salt also used to fall under this restricted category – which is while you’ll sometimes still see old signs outside tobacco shops advertising sali e tabacchi: salt and tobacco.

Buy other odds and ends

Of course, cigarettes and lotto cards aren’t the only items on offer at your average tabaccheria.

The range of products sold at an Italian tobacconist usually includes postage stamps, postcards, and greetings cards; stationery, magazines, tissues and playing cards; and chewing gum, crisps, chocolate, and other snacks and bottled drinks.

You’ll also often find small trinkets and souvenirs, such as keychains, jewellery, and children’s toys.

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MONEY

REVEALED: Which are Italy’s cheapest supermarkets?

As the cost of living crisis hits household budgets in Italy as elsewhere, a new study says switching supermarkets could shave thousands of euros a year off your grocery shopping bill.

REVEALED: Which are Italy's cheapest supermarkets?

As the cost of living keeps rising amid soaring inflation – Italy’s inflation rate hit a 37-year high at the end of last month – many households across Italy, as elsewhere, are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing to cut the rising cost of living?

The government’s recent suggestion of lowering or even scrapping IVA (VAT, or sales tax) on basic food products hasn’t materialised. But consumers could still find ways to save on their grocery shopping.

Many shoppers are now switching supermarkets to save money, or considering it.

And doing so could pay off. A new study from Italian consumer group Altroconsumo showed a family of four can save up to 3,350 euros a year by shopping at discount supermarkets such as Aldi and Eurospin.

Altroconsumo, savings on grocery shopping

Maximum possible savings by type of shopping and household size. Graphic courtesy of Altroconsumo.

For context, the study found Italian families with two children spend an average of 8,550 euros a year on groceries. 

While discount supermarkets do allow for considerable savings however they also generally offer lower-quality products which not all consumers will be satisfied with.

Shoppers can also reduce costs by switching to supermarket own-brand items (i.e. items carrying the supermarket logo), available in stores such as Carrefour and Iper-Coop. 

In particular, shopping at Carrefour, which is the most affordable supermarket in Italy when it comes to own-brand goods, can allow a family of four to save as much as 3,250 euros per year (savings can amount to 2000 euros for individual consumers). 

Consumers who do not wish to part ways with branded products (prodotti di marca) can still save on their shopping, though in this case savings are comparatively lower.

Shopping at Esselunga – the most cost-effective Italian supermarket for branded goods – allows for savings up to 350 euros for single individuals and up to 570 euros for families with two children.

Finally, potential savings are considerably reduced for consumers choosing to stick with a spesa mista, meaning that they generally fill up their shopping cart with a combination of branded items, distributor-brand goods and low-cost goods.

Regional differences 

While switching supermarket can mean savings on food bills, exactly how much you’ll save varies greatly by region.

In particular, Altroconsumo’s latest report highlighted once again the stark divide separating the north of the country from the centre and south. 

READ ALSO: From coffee to haircuts: How the cost of living varies around Italy

 Of the 15 cheapest Italian supermarkets, only two are located in the central or southern regions of the boot (Sesto Fiorentino’s Coop-Fi and Spesa 365 in Bari).

More importantly, consumers living in the north and shopping at the cheapest supermarket or hypermarket available in their city can save as much as 18 percent on a branded-goods-only food bill.

In equal circumstances (i.e. buying only branded items at the cheapest local store), consumers living in most central or southern cities can only save between two and three percent. 

Convenience map by Altroconsumo

The “convenience map”, with the cheaper cities shown in green and the more expensive cities shown in red. Graphic courtesy of Altroconsumo.
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