Marketing tactics for the New Depression from the Great Depression

26 Sep

Had something like this as a child from the grocery store!

In the interest of full disclosure, the Thrifty Bon Vivant must reveal she was raised by Great Depression-era parents. This stood them in good stead. The thrifty habits of their youth continued, even as their wallets thickened, and now, still healthy and happy in their 90s, they can say they paid for three children’s college years (no loans), have long paid off the mortgage on their three-bedroom home, always paid for a new car with cash, and can indulge themselves as they like. In short, my mother, the money manager, did a great job massaging my dad’s salary and had a knack for the stock market, which increased it considerably.

Like all children of such parents, I did my share of eye-rolling listening to tales of the old days. Had I but listened, would I be in my present (soon to be past!) financial situation? Of course not! I was taught never to carry a balance on my credit card. But somewhere (I am cueing the emphatic tambourine player’s shake and slap) I slipped off the straight and narrow path into the muddy shoulder of those who want more than they need, those who don’t cut their coat according to their size (beckoning in the tuneful moans of a gospel choir here), those who fell prey to the thought that prices were only going to go up–in short, I became a shameful child who had jumped off a cliff because everybody else was. I now beat my breast in penitence, and greet the world at dawn as a reformed sinner.

And now a lot of those Depression Era stories come back to me. Some are being echoed today, such as…the return of layaway! Yes, layaway still existed in my prosperous tail-end-of-the-baby-boomer youth–teenagers would see an enticing mini that their mother would never buy for them, put some money down, and return weekly to dole out some allowance or part-time job money till it was paid up, then take it home. Then layaway vanished, as credit was extended to more and more–who wanted to be bothered with layaway when every store had a credit card? But–coming in every week not only allowed purchasers to buy bit by bit, it exposed them to the store’s contents on a weekly basis–not a bad marketing tactic in and of itself. Now K-Mart, Sears and Toys-R-Us already have layaway, and Walmart is introducing it just for the holiday season, beginning Oct. 17. Only certain items apply, service charges and down payments are present–but perhaps layaway will find its way into smaller stores, which also had it in the past–it only takes a record and a storage rack.

Giveaway lures were also popular. Dish Night at the movies

Depression Era glass--once el Cheapo, now a collector's item

meant you could pick up glassware or china, one piece at a time. Others were enclosed in product boxes. Women wanted a whole set, so they were bound to return. Again, I remember similar promotions in my own youth–the grocery store would have inexpensive but cute dishes, a different size each week. If Dave’s Market gave out one for every sales slip over $100, I could equip whole households with new dishes! my favorite Jetsons orange juice glass was a Sinclair giveaway with a purchase of a certain amount. Giant Eagle‘s gas station/grocery store arrangement lures the customer on a similar principle, as do rewards cards at some dining spots. But the movies…often Tower City Cunemas are extremely empty, and now they have expanded their lures to include specials on Monday (free fountain drink with popcorn, $1 off candy and soda, and $5 admission), Tuesday (free 32 oz. popcorn with admission), Wednesday (no 3D surcharge), Thursday (student night), or the free Marquee Club rewards card, which leads to free tickets and concessions. What if they restarted giveaways? Could they bring in more bodies if they had children’s book day once a month? Or a door prize for Tower City’s nail salon (my favorite in town) or some other shop/service?

I’m going to ask my mom about other tactics of the day. What would lure you?


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