ONE BRAND FOR ALBERTSON'S

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Albertson's pending purchase of American Stores will give it supermarkets spanning 37 states: Albertson's and American's Acme, Jewel and Lucky. It says it will keep the four brands. That's three too many.

Supermarkets have been reluctant to jettison regional names even as chains merge and national and multistate retailers emerge. Local brands, the theory goes, have great equity, and changing the name is not only expensive but means risking loss of the customer. But is that necessarily so? If prices and service remain the same, or better, at the renamed store, why would shoppers abandon it?

Next, consider the advantages of a single brand. It would be much easier for Albertson's to execute a clear, focused company strategy when it doesn't have to be filtered through four different brands. A single brand leads to efficiencies in creating one high-impact national ad campaign and in stocking the stores with one brand family of private-label products -- a national private-label "brand." Note, too, that a national supermarket can still act locally, just as Borders and Target adjust inventory to reflect local tastes.

Consumers flock to good, national retail brands. Shoppers that move from Chicago to Los Angeles don't automatically transfer their business from American Stores' Jewel to its Lucky chain in California. If Albertson's customers move, why wouldn't they stick with a name they knew? One brand name also would make Albertson's a stronger competitor against national retailers -- Wal-Mart, Kmart, Costco -- now pecking away at the supermarket business.

National supermarket brands, such as Albertson's, Safeway and Kroger, are destined to grow in a consolidating market. Albertson's would be smart to be at the front of the single-brand wagon.

National names are hardly a new idea. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. opened its first stores in 1869, and it remained the grocery leader for more than 100 years. A&P stumbled before it ever made it to the West Coast and the Pacific Ocean. But it had the right idea in adopting one name nationwide.

FDA warned

Policymakers at the Food & Drug Administration were bluntly reminded by a U.S. District Court this month they must balance their concerns about prescription drug marketing with respect for the requirements of the First Amendment when it comes to commercial speech.

Even though conventional advertising was not involved in this ruling, the court's warning, if it triggers some soul-searching at the FDA, could have a healthy impact on healthcare marketing as a whole. It's time the FDA broke with the notion that the best remedy for commercial speech it's uncomfortable with is to find a way to suppress it.

The rules voided by the court were aimed at barring drug marketers from distributing to physicians any journal articles or other sources of information, prepared independently of the marketer, that dealt with uses of prescription drugs not specifically approved by the FDA. While the FDA is charged with carefully regulating what can be listed as approved uses on drug package labels, once out in the marketplace doctors can -- and do -- prescribe drugs in dosages or for uses the agency has not OK'd. The government does not dispute physicians' authority to do this, but the FDA objects to marketer actions that seem to encourage it.

The court agreed drug marketers supply such articles to boost sales, but told the FDA the answer is not to shut down the information flow by regulatory fiat when it can require disclaimers that clearly caution physicians the article discusses uses for the drug that have not undergone the FDA scrutiny .

As Judge Royce Lamberth put it, the FDA, in presuming all claims about prescription products are untrue or misleading until it has examined them, "exaggerates its overall place in the universe."

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