Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Adventures in Advertising: The Lost Art Of Store-Checking

On my post about the need for strategic account people, I received a comment about store-checking.  I realized that store-checks have become a lost art.  But, once upon a time, visiting stores, counting facings, checking competitive products and talking to consumers as they bought yours or competitive products was part of every account manager’s job (clients, too and I don’t think they do it anymore, either).   

I can think of two stories I would like to share which illustrate the benefits from visiting stores and understanding distribution.

The first is the true story of the success of Pampers.  

I am not sure when P&G introduced Pampers, but sometime in the 1950’s.  The standard until that time was cloth diapers.  If families had the money, they had a diaper service which would pick up soiled diapers and deliver new ones each week. If not, diapers would be washed at home. Yuck.  But despite their obvious benefit, Pampers, the first paper diaper brand, did not do well.  As I understand it, Proctor actually considered dropping the product.  

Then, an account person from the Pampers’ agency, Benton & Bowles (subsequently D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles – DMB&B – now Publicis) was determined to figure out why they were doing so poorly.  He took a week to do a store-check across the country.  He observed that while Pampers had good distribution, its location within supermarkets was unfocused – it could be found everywhere and anywhere in the store without consistency - paper goods, convenience goods, drug products.  Sales were sluggish, probably because it was in a different location in every store, even within the same chain. The account person observed that every supermarket carried four or five brands of baby foods; most of these brands had identical product selections (strained peas, beans, carrots, etc.).  He made this observation and recommended to his brand manager that Proctor should try to get the stores to put Pampers in the baby food section, even if it meant removing one brand to make room.

Guess what?  When put next to baby food, sales soared.  That was in the early to mid-1960’s. The rest is history.

The second true story involved Eno Antacid in Canada.  

Eno brand antacid was number two behind Alka-Seltzer (they were/are similar products).  I forget what their share was, but it was significant. Suddenly, Eno share of market started growing in French Canada.  With each subsequent Nielsen report, sales and share kept increasing; this was highly unusual behavior for any well established and significant brand.  Warehouse withdrawals skyrocketed, but with no explanation. Neither the sales nor marketing people had any idea why this might be happening. The manufacturer couldn’t understand it and needed to find out why and what could or should be done about it  

The agency account manager and the client marketing director went to Montreal and Quebec City to figure out what was happening.  Three days of store checking in Montreal revealed nothing.  Store managers and clerks had no idea why sales were increasing, but store shelves showed considerable product movement. 

Then, in Quebec, on the fourth day, they got their answer.  

In a small independent drugstore, a grandmotherly looking lady was carrying about six packages of Eno.  They immediately asked her why so many.  Her response was incredible: “Why monsieur, it is a wonderful aperitif.” Eno had become a fad drink among people of a certain age.  The client and agency got their answer.  After some discussion, it was decided to let the fad run its course, rather than to try to advertise it (It would have been way off strategy).  And sure enough, after about eight or ten months, the fad was over and sales started to decline.

I was the account guy. And we got our answer through store-checking.

I am sure there are hundreds of stories about positive things that happened as a result of a store check.  Understanding sales and distribution was part of the strategic underpinning of the client/agency relationship.  It helped agencies to have a complete understanding of their brands and it helped build credibility for the agencies to sell good creative work.  But most important, it contributed to making agencies and their clients partners.

Agencies need to start doing this again. 


  1. The funniest store check experience I ever had was back in the early '80s. I was working on Lifestyles condoms, which was then licensed by Warner Lambert. WL was emphatic about all of their account and brand people doing store checks on a regular basis. They believed, rightfully so, that it was the best way to familiarize yourself with the market, the competition, and the real environment where the products are sold.

    I was a young, single, female AE and here I was about to go count condoms....in public. So I wore a suit and carried a clipboard into every store. I would introduce myself to the store manager and get his/her permission and off I'd go to the condom section.

    I can't tell you how many times someone would come up to me and ask where they could find an item in the store, and the number of times I had to say "Sorry, I don't work here." The double takes, stares, etc. were mortifying at first, and then became absolutely hilarious. Only one intrepid shopper worked up the nerve to then ask me what I was doing.

    My first ever business trips were store checks.

    1. Helen, I love it. I can remember being asked to leave a store in Euclid, Ohio because I was talking to customers. One complained. Then she found out I was handing out two-for-one coupons (she initially walked away before I could give her one). She saw me being escorted out and came and apologized.

  2. As is the custom on Madison Avenue, store checking has become a discipline in its own right. OgilvyAction (aka Geometry), G2, Saatchi X are all extensions which focus on shopper marketing, retail activation and so on. Much of this directly tied into big-data from retailers (E.g. CVS) and the brand. It's not a lost art, it's now a highly-refined science.

    1. @Unknown: Good point but you are not totally right. First of all, the shopper marketing agencies rarely totally integrate with the traditional agencies. They also don't do the kinds of store checks I wrote about. To my knowledge, they mostly handle displays and signage and work with clients on those aspects of marketing.

      The store-checks I am talking about help the traditional brand agencies understand what is happening at retail (the two stories I told are perfect examples and, I promise you, today's shopper marketing agencies could never solve the two problems I illustrated). I meet account managers from the agencies you named and they do not do store checking as I described.

  3. As you discussed in another post truly understanding the client's biz has gone out the window. I've made burgers for Wendy's, worked behind the counter at Little Casears and wore brown for UPS while making deliveries. 1 Key lesson on the UPS experience-wear comfortable shoes. However when I was serving up server blades for a now forgotten company, things got a bit dicey.

    1. Well said, Chris. It is all about learning the client's business. It can;t be learned from reading a report. It has to be experienced.

  4. In the 1960's, an account executive handling our account gave me a tie clip that said YCDBSOYA and took me out to look at our products on the shelf in Shop Rite Stores. What a great lesson for a young guy in the manufacturing and marketing business. I can't tell you how many nights I spent in supermarkets stopping women and asking "why are you buying this". Nothing can replace "being there"

    1. Doug, I was unfamiliar with that acronym but after some time I figured it out. Won't reveal the spoiler here, though.

  5. A recent NY Times piece described groups of 20-somethings who visit bars but remain buried in their phones, looking to meet strangers through Tinder…instead of talking to the strangers next to them.

    The relevance? It is a total eWorld for generations under a certain age. Why go to stores and actually talk to customers when you can get unlimited info from ‘Big Data” on any electronic device? (as “Unknown” suggests). Of course there’s value to research conducted “IRL” (In Real Life) but it’s surely becoming more challenging to put those methods into practice.

    1. Nice, Ed. Until you have eaten a truffle (or a steak for that matter), it is impossible to describe the taste. Without experiencing a store situation, it is impossible to understand the competitive set that any product faces. Every company needs to make its people go out and experience the "store". You are right, you can't get it from a report.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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