A Retail Revolution on the River

By Malmo, John | Business Perspectives, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

A Retail Revolution on the River


Malmo, John, Business Perspectives


Over the past 50 years, the retail landscape in Memphis has changed radically. One of the Mid-South's top marketing professionals takes a shopping trip through time.

Fifty years only sounds like a long time if you're under 50. And only 50 years ago, retailing, retail shopping, and retail shoppers in Memphis were quite different from what they are today.

Were Memphis shoppers different from shoppers in other parts of the country 50 years ago? Somewhat. Are they different today? Not much. But as in all parts of America, every aspect of the retail business is quite different. In the past half-century, there have probably been more changes - and more significant changes - than in any other period of American history.

Dozens of factors have played a role in the vast changes that occurred in these past 50 retailing years, but three areas stand out as principal among these. They are the changes in communications, money, and mobility.

Consider the impact of communications. In 1945, there was no television, there were no computers, and the telephone was quite a primitive instrument compared to what it is today.

The influence of television on retailing both nationally and locally is impossible to overstate. Television has wiped out virtually all significant regional differences in retailing and retail shopping patterns. Fifty years ago, there were relatively few products that were national in scope; today, thanks to TV advertising, there are giant household brands. And, regional products and brands with appeal and staying power now are marketed nationally.

Fifty years ago, few people in Memphis had even heard of pizza or a taco, much less tasted one. Hamburgers were fried at home, or you bought one at Henry's Lunch at Poplar and Evergreen. A McDonald's drive-through window? The thought would have seemed preposterous.

A Media Explosion

There was only network radio to tie American consumers and brands together with any frequency 50 years ago, and radio had no visual capability for package, logo, or sign identity. There were national magazines, but most were published monthly, so there was no opportunity for advertisers to achieve a high level of frequency to pound our consciousness hourly. There were no national newspapers of general interest such as USA Today, and local newspapers, which lacked practical color printing capability and appeared only once daily, lacked the impact of television.

It is the amount of time people spend watching TV that has made it such an incredibly powerful factor. Television allowed an advertiser multiple exposures to a viewer every day, which was unparalleled.

Television made possible the tremendous growth in new products. A new product today could be placed in front of virtually every adult in America overnight via network TV advertising. Network TV can do for a new product what it would take months, or even years, to accomplish without it.

Locally, television's impact has been a factor in removing neighborhood shopping differences. Today, McDonald's operates 34 restaurants in Memphis. Fifty years ago, the only restaurant that had more than one location in the city was the Toddle House. The combined value of locally-purchased TV advertising and network-purchased TV advertising that is aired in Memphis for McDonald's exceeds $5 million annually. This advertising weight makes it possible to totally saturate a market and dominate the competition. When any brand raises the "voice level" of advertising for any category, it raises the cost of doing business for everyone in the category and weeds out the weak and the small.

Mail-order catalog shopping 50 years ago was restricted to the Sears, Roebuck catalog. When toll-free 800 numbers became available and mail-order.catalogs became 'phone-order catalogs,' the medium became a major competitor on a national basis to the most obscure local retailer of just about any kind of product, even fresh barbecue. …

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