First moment of truth, or big waste of money?

Letter from Neff: The retail floor may not be the best place for your brand

By Published on .

Media fragments. Retail consolidates. Wal-Mart alone draws 120 million Americans weekly, making it bigger than the Super Bowl. Ergo, retail is the new-and last-mass medium.

Such analysis has turned once-lowly in-store marketing into "the first moment of truth" at Procter & Gamble Co. and beyond. But there's a big lie at the first moment of truth. Retail is mass, but it's not really media.

It may be entertainment, but it's usually not where people go to watch, read or play, akin to TV, magazines, radio, Web sites or game consoles. "People are there to buy their stuff and get the hell out," as one veteran retail marketer has put it, more than once.

That's why you hardly ever see anyone standing around watching Wal-Mart TV. The people most exposed are Wal-Mart employees, bludgeoned for hours daily by constantly replayed ads.

Not that you necessarily want people to remember they saw your ad in a store.

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts has termed retail "the theater of dreams." Maybe where he shops. Where most people buy package goods, it's cinema verite of the grittiest kind, replete with mis-priced or missing merchandise, nonexistent service and used Kleenex left by the last person who had the shopping cart.

Mr. Roberts put it more aptly when Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott once asked him how he could keep customers in his stores longer. "Close some checkout lanes," Mr. Roberts reported he replied.

Even compared to circulation scandals, archaic measurement systems, the upfront and other affronts to market efficiency elsewhere, the retail ad market has problems.

For example, the biggest media marketer in stores, News Corp.'s News America, has a lock on shelf advertising in 35,000 stores and a roughly 90% market share. And think network TV is expensive? Compare it to the $19 million Unilever is spending via News America this year for category exclusives on little shelf placards and machine-fed coupons and such. That's more than the entire measured-media budgets for most of its brands.

getting creative

You can instead deal directly (or via proxy, such as Wal-Mart TV's PRN) with big retailers beyond News Corp.'s reach, such as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco. Trouble is, clean-shelf policies nix most ads there. And you're buying space from folks who buy your products and determine their merchandising. So guess who has an edge?

Creative marketing still happens in stores, but it's mainly new takes on sampling and packaging. Clorox Co., for instance, has seen disinfecting-wipes sales increase in stores that dispense them next to shopping carts (to clean up after those folks who left the Kleenex behind). Packaging, the one in-store space brand marketers control, has improved dramatically, and technology can probably allow bigger steps.

But if you think of retail as a medium, consider the words of Bob Connolly when he was CMO of Wal-Mart: "We're not the marketing. We're the market."
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