Take, for example, drugstores. Once there were little pharmacies, run by druggists with hairy ears and white smocks, who knew your name and hired pimply faced kids to deliver prescriptions and mix root-beer floats. Then there were big pharmacy chains: Rexall, Walgreens, Rite Aid, PharMor, CVS.
And now, Soma.com, Rx.com, PlanetRx.com, More.com, Drugstore.com.
And they will alter the lives of hundreds of millions. (It's already altered the life of the pimply soda jerks, who instead of making banana splits are doing IPOs and getting filthy rich while their damn voices are still cracking.com.)
Let's say you want to put together a typical market basket of drugstore items. Instead of getting in your car and running down to CVS, you can take the Web to More.com and order Debrox Earwax Remover (0.5 oz.), Dr. Scholl's Non-Medicated Corn Cushions (small), Diurex Water pills (42 count) and Astroglide personal lubricant (5 oz. economy size) -- all for $23.56!
Actually, that Web site should be called Substantiallymore.com, because the same items cost $20.66 at PlanetRx.com and only $19.96 at Drugstore.com.
The point is, once you become aware of these sites, and once you get into the habit of buying retail over the Web, your local strip mall will be in a whole heap of trouble.com.
The trick is awareness. There's some advantage to just being up and running earliest. Amazon.com seems to sell a lot of books despite its inscrutable URL. But you've got to think that the Web address Drugstore.com itself confers a huge competitive advantage. Hotjobs.com, for instance, outperforms Monster.com in the online employment-agency category.
But even the purest generic brand name guarantees nothing if the computing public isn't nudged into a heightened state of consciousness. It is left to the old media to direct our attention to the new ones. Thus is Drugstore.com on the air with two spots from McCann-Erickson, Seattle, intended to help us, literally and figuratively, to make the connection.
Which they will. In the first instance, they introduce the very existence of Drugstore.com ("It's a trip to the drugstore without the trip to the drugstore").
What they also attempt, entertainingly but unpersuasively, is to suggest something beyond the obvious advantage of online shopping. Embarrassment avoidance being one.
"I have a certain situation," a sheepish customer tells a drugstore clerk in one spot. "There's a backup on the old Jersey Turnpike. . . . The choo-choo won't leave the station. . . . The general is unable to deploy the troops."
Turns out he can't find the laxative aisle.
Cute. And so is one about a clerk who is clueless about herbal remedies. But Drugstore.com will not succeed on the backs of red-faced laxative, tampon, condom and incontinence-diaper shoppers, or by those confused between Valeriana and St. John's wort. It will live or die on price and convenience. So why not -- especially if you have a lock on the most generic URL -- address the issues that matter? In new media or old, the idea isn't simply to entertain.