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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

...and life became one big sale

By Dick Hirsch
Everyone loves a bargain. That’s true, isn’t it? I’m absolutely, positively sure that all the people I know would agree with that statement. Having just completed the holiday shopping period, the busiest time of year for most retailers, it seems timely to wonder about the authenticity of the seemingly endless cascade of bargains that are constantly competing for our attention.
Yes, I do wonder about the sale prices. “Sale,” presented directly as an unadorned four-letter word, has become the most powerful single motivational term in the dictionary of retail advertising. Words like “fabulous,” or “dazzling,” once favored in some ad copy, can no longer compete with “sale.” Even “just arrived” or “new fashions for the family” have been swept aside.
When did they start revising the traditional sale periods? Historians have been pondering that question for decades and the answer has proven to be elusive. When is a sale timely? Christmas sales are the most visible example. They were traditionally held after Christmas, most typically starting in mid-January. The stated goal was obvious: to offer reduced prices after the holiday shopping period ended; the stores were able to charge the full price in the weeks before the holiday, then marked down the prices after to clear out merchandise, make room for the next season’s stock and generate more cash.
For the customers it was always an easy decision: most shoppers bought at the list price so the gifts could be presented at Christmas; if they were not embarrassed to wait until after Christmas, they might save 20 percent. Otherwise, in the spirit of the season, they gladly paid the price on the ticket.
Now it is upside down and inside out. It is all sales all the time, a procession, one sale after another. It is difficult to chart the sales because when one promotional “event” is completed, the next one begins. Somewhere along the way---no one recalls exactly when or where it happened---a sale was elevated to the status of an event. Today, most retail is one big sale...or so it seems. People want to believe they are getting bargains, that the 20 percent off coupon, which every shopper has, places them in an enviable position.
List price? Are you kidding? Charging the list price has become a policy practiced in an increasingly rare number of locations. It’s always satisfying to buy at a discount from retail. That philosophy includes businesses far removed from traditional retailing. Consider the plight of travelers on airlines: the airlines have so many different fares that it’s difficult to find a fellow passenger making the same trip on the same flight on the same day who paid the same amount for a ticket.
(On the other hand, a small but insistent voice within me keeps repeating this observation: If you walk into certain stores where the price is the price, some comfort can be derived from knowing you are paying the same price as anyone else, no more, no less. Yes, there are sales, and they usually materialize just two or three times a year and when they end, they end. They are not followed by another event and another...)
There were always incentives to stimulate sales. Premiums were popular. For years, sets of encyclopedias were offered periodically in supermarkets, the first copy covering, say, from A to cacti, would be offered for about 99 cents. Other books were offered each week or month at a higher price. Glasses and dishes were popular promotional items. One of the longest lasting was the so-called trading stamp, popularized by the S & H Green Stamp, and later followed by Plaid Stamps and Blue Chip Stamps. Customers would get stamps from food stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other retailers, the number of stamps received depending on the amount of money spent. The stamps were then pasted in a book and when the book was filled it was redeemed, either for cash or for merchandise.
Just last week I stumbled upon a term that defeated me, and it is related to this area of sales and promotions. I knew it was an acronym, but I couldn’t guess what it meant. Acronyms are terms that enter the language and are made up of the initial letters of a familiar phrase. Some of the most popular ones need no explanation, ones like ASAP, FYI and SNAFU.
The term that puzzled me was BOGO. Soon, however, I learned BOGO means Buy One Get One. Watch for that offer at the next event. It’s almost like getting the stuff for half price.



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