Monday, August 6, 2012

Free Can Save Your Business: The Marketing Genius of Wall Drug

While on vacation with my family last week to camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I saw billboards along I-90 for Wall Drug.

A lot of billboards ...

According to one source, Wall Drug spends an estimated $400,000 on billboard signs every year, with over 500 miles of them along Interstate 90 from Minnesota to Montana.

You may think those signs are kitschy and a bit annoying. They are.

But did you know the fascinating back story of Wall Drug?

Today it's described by The New York Times as "a sprawling tourist attraction of international renown [that] takes in more than $10 million a year and draws some two million annual visitors to a remote town."

But it began in 1931 as a small, struggling drug store, in the depths of the Depression.

What saved Wall Drug and helped turn it into the $10-million success it is today?

Free ice water.

According to owner Ted Hustead's story in Guideposts magazine:

By the time the summer of 1936 came around, our business hadn't grown much at all. Our five-year trial would be up in December. What would we do then? Along with nine-year-old Billy, Dorothy and I now had a one-month-old daughter, Mary Elizabeth. What hardships was I putting them in store for?

One hot Sunday in July, though, a great change swept us up. It started quietly, in the deadening heat of an early afternoon, when Dorothy said to me, "You don't need me here, Ted. I'm going to put Billy and the baby down for a nap and maybe take one myself."

I minded the empty store. I swatted flies with a rolled-up newspaper. I stood in the door, and no matter where I looked, there was no shade, because the sun was so high and fierce.

An hour later Dorothy came back.

"Too hot to sleep?" I asked.

"No, it wasn't the heat that kept me awake," Dorothy said. "It was all the cars going by on Route 16A. The jalopies just about shook the house to pieces."

"That's too bad," I said.

"No, because you know what, Ted? I think I finally saw how we can get all those travelers to come to our store."

"And how's that?" I asked.

"Well, now what is it that those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They're thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water! Now we've got plenty of ice and water. Why don't we put up signs on the highway telling people to come here for free ice water? Listen, I even made up a few lines for the sign:

"Get a soda . . . Get a root beer . . . turn next corner . . . Just as near . . . To Highway 16 & 14. . . Free Ice Water. . . Wall Drug."

It wasn't Wordsworth, but I was willing to give it a try. During the next few days a high school boy and I put together some signs. We modeled them after the old Burma Shave highway signs. Each phrase of Dorothy's little poem went on a 12 by 36 inch board. We'd space the boards out so the people could read them as they drove.

The next weekend the boy and I went out to the highway and put up our signs for free ice water. I must admit that I felt somewhat silly doing it, but by the time I got back to the store, people had already begun showing up for their ice water. Dorothy was running all around to keep up. I pitched in alongside her.

"Five glasses of ice water, please," a father called out.

"May I have a glass for Grandma?" a boy asked. "She's in the car."

We ran through our supply of cracked ice. I began chiseling more off the block.

"Say, good sir," one traveler said in a Scottish brogue, "we're going all the way to Yellowstone Park. Would you mind filling this jug with your water?"

"Hey this free ice water is a great idea," said a salesman, sidling up onto a stool. "How about selling me an ice cream cone?"

For hours we poured gallons of ice water, made ice cream cones and gave highway directions. When the travelers started on their way again, refreshed and ready for new adventures, they gave us hearty thanks.

When the day was done, Dorothy and I were pooped. We sat in front of the store, watching the sun set, feeling a cool breeze come in off the prairie. In the summer twilight, Wall looked radiant. It looked like a good place to call home.

"Well, Ted, " Dorothy said to me, "I guess the ice water signs worked."

They surely did work, and we've never really been lonely for customers since then. The next summer we had to hire eight girls to help us ....
Nowadays, that struggling drug store looks like this:

The day after Ted Hustead died in 1999, the governor of South Dakota lauded him as "a guy that figured out that free ice water could turn you into a phenomenal success in the middle of a semi-arid desert way out in the middle of someplace."

So, what's the bottom line here?

This: No matter how bad things may seem in your business, you may be one idea from the breakthrough you need to thrive. You may be sitting on that idea right now, as the Husteads were with ice and water.

Perhaps all you need do is give something away to attract and endear yourself to your ideal customers, as the Husteads did.

In any case, if you're reading this, you have more advantages, resources, and tools at your disposal than the Husteads could have ever dreamed of. They turned "certain" defeat into a multi-million dollar success with just one good idea and persistent marketing.

Why not you, too?

Resource: Speaking of free, if you want to put an end to "feast-or-famine" syndrome in your business, the free Client Cloning Kit can help. Grab your copy here.

No comments:

Post a Comment