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April 28, 2018

Growing up in Louisa ...Free gifts!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

A marketing ploy of the mid-forties, fifties and into the sixties were a number of ‘free’ gimmicks used by retailers to increase loyalties to stores, and in some cases, specific brands. One that I remember was when manufacturers added an item such as a dish or washcloth in a box of laundry detergent. I’ve seen the old ‘Jewel Tea’ dishes in many older family homes, but seldom in homes from later generations. Some of our best china (not) came one at a time in oatmeal. Even wash cloths and drinking glasses came this way.

The grand hope of getting something free is nothing more than a marketing ploy to sell the products, but human nature being what it is, folks love to think they’re getting something over on the company. Never mind that it is the company who makes the offer, we still felt like winners when we laid our hands on the prizes. This kind of thing has not gone away, but is still in advertising all around us. Who hasn’t watched late night TV and saw a miraculous new product being offered…wait a minute, ‘If you order right now we will double the offer.’ (‘Only pay a small shipping charge and the second one is yours.) We know that if we were to hold out a minute more we may get a set of steak knives that never need sharpening and are guaranteed to cut through metal. Oh, my. It goes on and on. Frankly, some things I’ve seen have raised my interest, but overall, the products are unneeded and come with the risk they are not worth the money. Besides, I already have steak knives. It’s the steak that I don’t have, silly!

Since I enjoy painting pictures and do other crafts, as does Suzie, we have learned to do all of our supply buying with coupons in hand. One major craft-store puts out various coupons once or twice a week. They show up in the newspaper and through my email. So many coupons are offered that it makes me wonder if the fair and honest retail prices are only offered to those people who have coupons. The rest of them are over-paying. Paying full price makes little sense unless you have a craft emergency, whatever that is.   

After leaving Kentucky I later worked with several large retail stores, working up to a good position with each. We would buy products at wholesale and place them on the shelves and racks in our stores. It was common that we would mark up the goods by twice the wholesale amount. This would cover our overhead, which includes utilities, the building, advertising, payroll, and finally reductions we had to make to clear out the left-over or seasonal items. There were times when I would go to the wholesalers or manufacturers and buy lots of goods at clearance prices. This would enable me to put them in stores at a greatly reduced price, thus passing savings to the customer. What was not seen was that I was still making double the actual wholesale price. It was just that this price had been lowered. My profits soared because of the jump in actual sales. It was nice for a time being a hero.    

Back when we were growing up it was common for cereal makers to include a toy prize, or a premium that was placed in the box. Cracker Jacks is famous for their prize at the bottom, and they still use that, if not to attract new sales, then to keep the tradition. Others had kids accumulate a number of ‘box tops’ to send in for a decoder ring, badge, or a secret membership card. Even today kids get excited over the free gift toy in their McDonalds Happy Meal.

The biggest seller for boys in my day were the collectable baseball cards issued by Topps and other companies originally meant as a ‘premium’ for buying gum, tobacco, or whatever. Frankly, the gum wasn’t all that good, but the thrill of getting a ‘good’ player’s baseball card was worth it. I would buy packs of cards kept close to the checkout counters in the stores around town. I remember once or twice when Andy York kindly bought a whole box of cards and sold them to me at his cost. When I went through those boxes wrappers and gum got tossed, but the cards were sorted and added to my growing collection. I would sometimes trade with friends to enhance both our libraries, each now owning cards we didn’t have before. If I still had them they would have a lot of value now. I had Babe Ruth cards, tobacco cards, and tons of Topps cards from the fifties. When I went to the service I guess they went to the dump between Town hill and Pine hill. I never saw them again.

 All these we figured were ‘free gifts.’ For the seller, it insured the customer would return to buy more, so it was worth a little extra cost or effort. They buried this ‘extra cost’ in the sales price. If we thought it through, we would discover (again) that there’s no ‘free lunch.’ Besides, the family budget sometimes didn’t allow for a new set of dishes, but a box of detergent was to be expected. In those days the housewife was stuck with a small, rigid budget. Premiums were a godsend and satisfied adult and child alike. I remember a family friend who didn’t collect but knew that I did. They would save me the labels or box-tops so I could earn a ‘free gift.’ My ‘Sky King’ wings were won almost instantly!

Another popular thing that crossed the line between ‘brands,’ but instead transferred our buying loyalties away from particular products to the stores and filling stations who serviced us. I’m talking about trading stamps that became a gigantic influence in how we bought nearly everything. While this program began in the 30’s, it didn’t get to our part of the woods until much later. When a small group of participating merchants started giving these out, they increased their sales and struck a blow to the competition. This forced other stores to jump in and issue trading stamps.

The customers had to collect pages of stamps and paste them into a book to redeem for prizes of all sorts. I recall that stamps were placed loosely into a box and later we’d come together as a family and do the ‘catch up’ pasting.

Honus WagnerHonus WagnerI think it was Raleigh tobacco that put stamps into every carton of cigarettes to be collected for redemption at a future time. Like a few folks, I saved those for a while, but I never tried to redeem them. I never seemed to have enough to get anything worthwhile. If the general population was like that, a very small percentage of the redeemable products were ever issued to the collector. The bottom line is that the stores bought into the program and may have increased their overall business, but the stamp companies rolled in profit.

Marketing is sometimes a slight-of-hand action more than providing a generous gift. It isn’t necessarily evil, but simply a way to increase sales while reducing overhead. The net effect should be a profit for the seller and a benefit for the consumer. In the end, all of these were marketing gimmicks. If it got my attention and I jumped to make a purchase, I reinforced their program.

I remember from my reading a long time ago that Ben Franklin told a story of bargaining for a whistle he wanted. His advice was to ‘never pay too much for your whistle.’ I try to remember that when trying to fulfill my needs or wishes. Back in the 30’s and 40’s they used to say in the movies that ‘everything has an angle.’ They were right.

Maybe there’s a reader or two that still uses those Jewel Tea plates, or other premiums left over from days gone by. Some of you may still have some unused stamps in the corner of an attic, or have a decoder ring. How interesting it would be to find some of those treasures long forgotten. Good luck.

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Comments  

0 #2 Diane 2018-04-30 11:55
I saved my stamps and "bought" a lamp. That was about fifty years ago. I still have the lamp and it still works. I do have it plugged into a device that is then plugged into the electric outlet as I don't trust the fifty year old wiring!
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0 #1 Bernard Nelson 2018-04-28 19:06
Yep, I remember the freebees you speak of. Also the green stamps, remember them. Folks will buy anything if they think they will get something free or at a reduced price. Case in point, I remember one of the stores that I worked at when I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL use to do the following: The owner was bad at over buying. His dad who worked for a wholesale house in Ashland, would come by the store, check the inventory in the basement, have me bring a couple of bushel baskets up and put the in the middle of the floor. I'll us carnation cream as an example, we would dump 2 or 3 cases of cream into the baskets & they would go rolling every where. He would put a sign on them "SPECIAL' 4 cans for 50 cents, limit 8 cans to a customer. The regular shelf price of the cans of milk was 12 cents a can. Folks would buy what every was in the baskets like it was going out of style, ha. ha. I learned a great lesson from that old man. Even to this day I always check the regular price first. When I worked in Ashland we use to go to one drive-in to eat lunch. They had a special that included sandwich, fries & drink for a certain amount. However I would never order it, I would order fries, A cup of black coffee & a sandwich which was 49 cents cheaper that the special & I got the same thing. My co-workers finally ask me why I did that, when I told them to add up the price, they could not believe it. kSo another great article Mike, and as always, "thanks for the memoreies".
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