Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Retail World of 1966

This is a post where I'm on territory I know little about, so be warned.

I looked at some newspapers from November 1966 to make sure that I wasn't being nostalgic about how much department store advertising there was. There really were 10 or more pages of Sunday advertising from each of the Big Four department stores in Philadelphia -- John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbels and Lit Bros. With lesser amounts from Sears, Penneys, Bonwit Teller, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and C.A. Rowell, Philadelphia's only big neighborhood department store.

But that made me wonder -- who else advertised at that time in newspapers? How has the retail and advertising environment so changed?

So I looked at three daily Inquirers for the first week in November and the Sunday Inquirer. At that time, the Bulletin would have gotten the majority of daily advertising, but the Inquirer was larger on Sunday. Advertisers considered the daily Inquirer no bargain. The department stores were represented, and there were "co-op" advertisers (like car ads with the names of local dealers at the bottom). There were five big grocery chains -- A&P, Acme, Penn Fruit, Food Fair and Pantry Pride. And, of course, every day had movie ads -- though not as large or as many as one might recall. But the paper was not stuffed with ads.

Missing today is that there was much more national advertising -- a lot (a LOT!) of beer and liquor advertising, and patent-medicine advertising (stomach pills, nasal sprays). There were cigarette ads, of course, and ads for Hills Bros. Coffee, Canada Dry, Mott's -- but mostly liquor ads, perhaps because back then liquor could not be advertised on television. These were newspaper clients that went back decades.

The other category less seen today is "contract ads" -- to get the contract rate, you had to run an ad at a certain frequency, usually least once a week, so you had an evergreen ad that ran every Tuesday and then would get a better rate on special ads. (The Kansas City Star was a huge contract-ad paper; every day's paper had scores of 1-column-by-1-inch ads to secure the contract rate.) There were a lot of "Dental Plate Repair" ads like this, along with some plumbers, rug cleaners and the like. The daily paper had surprisingly little "buy this today!" advertising, although it did attract men's stores.

Then came the "Thursday zones," as we used to call them -- once-a-week sections with zoned advertising. They were bursting with ads, but not just for local merchants. Woolworth's was there, as was Dodge Trucks. Some chains, such as Atlantic Appliance, only advertised in the zones. Clearly they wanted to be in the paper, but not at full rate.

And then came Sunday, when more than 100 additional advertisers came forward. Probably some of them were in the daily Bulletin. These included the major niche retailers: In men's wear, Jacob Reed's Sons, Morville, Berg Bros.; in women's, Lillian Albus, Helen Caro, Franklin Simon, The Blum Store and especially Nan Duskin; in shoes, Dial, Geuting's, Baker's. Fur stores were a big category back then. Jewelers were somewhat underrepresented, but it might just have been the week.

Major space was taken by the discounters, such as E.J. Korvette and S. Klein, and the era's big-box appliance stores, such as Silo and Dee's. And the J.B. Van Sciver furniture stores took a page and a half.

What amazed me was the number of ads that I would call singles or bloopers -- 2x6, 1x4, 3x5, one per week. I remembered the department store ads correctly, but had forgotten about all the small advertisers -- like Typhoon Fence and Gumas Bros. Toys. Most advertisers in The Inquirer were small advertisers. And they advertised full-run. Marv Blatt Tire, which is still at its location four blocks from where I work, ran a full-run ad on Sundays. That was one million circulation all over Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware for a tire store with one location. The Frances Rosen Dress Shop at 2455 N. 54th St. ran a full-run ad. Nowadays Frances would be told that no one more than three or four miles from her store would ever go there.

Advertising is one of the best-read things in newspapers. The fewer ads we have, the fewer reasons there are to read the paper. Back in those days, newspapers could demand pretty much whatever rate they wanted, but I'm sure most of The Inquirer's clients were just paying for the cost of the newsprint. I'm also sure it takes more time to serve those sort of clients than one makes off their business -- back then you could charge them for the composing room work, now you just paste in a pdf -- but would people pay more attention to papers if there simply were more ads, even if we just broke even on them? (Because whatever people want, it's always coupled with: More.)

Print can never compete with click-through ad rates, but if the per-unit cost of advertising is simply declining overall, would it be better to just take less money and get more volume? I don't know enough about the advertising business to know, and I know that there are rules about unfair competition that can get you in trouble if you sell ads at a loss. But since we let classified grow to become half of ad revenue to replace the national and retail clients we lost, and if classified advertising is now What Works Best Online, maybe the only thing left is to put a "sale!" sign on the price of retail advertising for small businesses. Seeing some of the ads in our local papers, like a daily two-page ad for an appliance store that's moving, I wonder if it's being done already.

The inevitable problem for metro dailies, I know, is that these days those small merchants are in strip malls or small towns miles from the city. Except for the Thursday zones, nearly all of the small advertisers back then were in the city of Philadelphia.

The department store technique was: If it doesn't sell, mark it down until it does. In today's world, once you've marked down prices, you have to keep them there. But people go to a Wal-mart or Target not just because it has low prices but because it has lots of merchandise. The cost of newsprint being what it is, one has to break even, but who are today's equivalents of Van Scivers or Nan Duskin -- the middle-level store that draws from the whole region, that's not Wal-Mart and not La-Di-Da Gifts? I know newspapers must be making calls on them. Or was it that the only way it was profitable to keep those accounts was the money provided by 10 pages of ads from Wanamakers and Gimbels? Whatever, a paper with just-break-even ads has to be better in the short run than the acres of adless pages in the Post and the Times or the six-page A sections in some metro papers.

So I looked in one of our local papers today. Ads for Dunkin' Donuts and C&C's Spirit of Fitness. Ads for dentists. Contract ads for furniture stores. Banks, shoe stores, diners, health clubs. National ads for cell phones and Dell computers. Spine doctors. Kitchen cabinet firms. And a 30-page Kohl's back-to-school preprint. The daily paper is the same business outside of classified that it was in 1966, the same odd collection of advertisers. In the Sunday paper, it's all inserts instead of ROP ads, but it's the same products being sold -- clothes, TVs, furniture. I don't know anything about the advertising business, but a paper that's just journalism, no matter how great, has to have less appeal.


Scoats said...

A big difference between 1966 and now is that nearly everyone read the Bulletin. Nearly nobody I know reads the hard copy of the Inky. As a small business owner and potential advertiser, that's a problem for me. I see advertising in the paper as high cost/low impact per eyeball

For almost 20 years, I have noticed how few homes get home delivery here in Philadelphia. The slow death of the Inky and Daily News has been going on for years. The romance of the daily newspaper is dead too. Of course, now with blogs all of us can be Clark DeLeon or Steve Lopez, though not paid.

Also remember back in the day, there was no Web. If you thought you might need a merchant's service, you might cut out the ad and put it somewhere you would find it if needed. Now you just Google their Website.

Things are radically different.

Davisull said...

The contract ads -- running every day or every week -- were an attempt to get around that. You might not clip the dentist's ad, but if you needed a dentist, you would come across his ad during the week. While Google obviously works, so do printed phone books, which are still having enormous success.

A business that depends on the customer wanting a service when the customer makes up his mind he wants it -- an irrigation business, say, or a kitchen business -- probably works better as a reference ad. Tire stores used to advertise nearly every day, on the idea that you only need a tire when you need a tire. That sort of level of advertising would sink most small businesses.

The Inquirer was traditionally a large street-sale paper and the Daily News almost exclusively so. Most newspapers had and still have higher home delivery numbers. Not to shill for my own paper on a personal blog, but about 40 percent of the people in the market see the paper during the week and the number is much higher on Sunday. Also readership of the Inquirer varies wildly by zip code.

In the 1990s people who work at the paper were amazed to find out that only 3 percent of the market read the New York Times (this is pre-Internet). Their answer was, "everyone I know reads the New York Times." Both things probably were true. We can all get caught in our own frames of reference.

But back to the post -- what level of cost would make it effective to you? How low would it have to go? With the understanding that it can't compete with free.

And even with blogs, almost none of us can be Steve Lopez.

Scoats said...

A onetime ad in the Daily News costs about $200. For my business with one location that ad will never deliver enough business to justify it. At least now with how the ads are mostly clutter. Maybe if newspapers radically changed how they present the ads, newspaper ads might be more effective.

Most of us can't be Steve Lopez, but the Inky had too many angry soccer mom columnists. The most unreadable angry soccer mom being John Grogan. Thinking on it now Grogan is the anti-Steve Lopez. Who'd of thunk Grogan would have become so wealthy? Not to rag on Grogan, there is a place for his type of writing, but there is a limit.

But we don't all need to be Steve Lopez. Many of us can be quite readable just being ourselves.