Jones Rexall

Jones Rexall


Thousands of Rexall Drug Stores fronted Main Street in communities throughout the nation for eight decades of the 20th century. Most were locally owned, and all possessed an exclusive franchise for Rexall brand merchandise in their town or section of a city. Actively supporting Rexall Stores were the management and advertising departments, factories and distribution networks comprising the vast corporate body of United Drug Company and its successor, Rexall Drug Company. Followers of this Blog will see gradual publishing of histories, vintage photographs and memorabilia acquired during twenty-five years of research and collecting—glimpses of the Rexall phenomenon and personalities that drove its creation and success.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Selling the Rexall One Cent Sale

One Cent Sales were arguably the most successful drugstore merchandise promotions staged in the 20th century. During the years I worked in Rexall Stores, sales were held each spring and fall and lasted 6 to 10 days. Storefront windows were plastered with signs, colorful newsprint “shoppers” were delivered to everyone in town, and the sales were pitched as “shopping events” on radio and television. Huge displays of fast movers like aspirin, mouthwash, milk of magnesia, deodorant and shaving cream swelled the aisles as long as stock held out.

Idea for the Rexall One Cent Sale is credited to druggists Gray & Worcester of Detroit, Michigan, charter stockholders in the United Drug Company. The store initially attempted "2-for-1" sales with moderate results, but was inspired to try the added twist of charging a penny for the second item. United Drug acquired controlling interest of Gray & Worcester in January 1909, and in May of that year opened a second store across the street on Woodward Avenue.
A pictorial ad in the Detroit News for August 27, 1909 used the slogan, “See What 1 Cent Will Buy” and listed 17 items regularly priced 5 to 25 cents at both stores. Response was superior to anything tried before, and repeat “One Cent" sales proved the concept was a winner.
August 1909 ad for Detroit, MI Rexall Stores.

Crux of the sale was simple yet ingenious. Rather than discount the retail price of an item, it was advertised at full price. The buyer was then irresistibly enticed, for an additional penny, to acquire a second identical item. The Rexall One Cent Sale did not precisely offer “two for the price of one” or “50% off,” but suggested to the shopper, “pay the regular price for one, and get another for only one cent more.” The ploy seems to wither under analysis since it obviously had the effect of a half-price sale, but its unique structure emphasized normal price and thus avoided perception of reduced value of the product. The strategy was wildly successful, and remained so for decades. When president and general manager of United Drug Co., Louis K. Liggett, heard about Gray & Worcester’s success, he encouraged other Rexall stores to emulate the sale. Most druggists were hesitant to try it as a major promotion, preferring to combine the idea with an established event such as the annual Rexall Week Sale that featured Rexall brand articles. As a compromise, some dealers coupled items that were not identical, e.g. the buyer of a box of Rexall Tooth Powder was offered a jar of Rexall Cold Cream for the additional penny.

Gradually, Rexall dealers across the country included more One Cent Sale merchandise in local newspaper advertising. Charles and Oscar Bradley ran a three day sale at their Huntington, Indiana store in March 1912 in which most of the advertised items were under the One Cent option. Of these, 30 percent were manufactured by United Drug Company. Rexall druggist F.P. Reynolds of St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada followed suit in the fall of 1913 with a heavy offering of Rexall brand medicines, toilet goods and stationery in his One Cent Sale.

Newspaper ad for One Cent Sale at Huntington, Indiana Rexall Store, March 1912.
Rexall druggists enjoyed significant advantage over their competition because of United Drug Company’s business model—cooperative manufacturing. Most franchised dealers were stock-holding, dividend-earning members of the cooperative and were well aware the most profitable items in the store were United Drug controlled brands like Rexall, Puretest, Firstaid, Harmony Perfumes and Liggett’s Candy. These long-margin products were made in their own factories and distributed through their own warehouses, with no percentage going to intermediate jobbers or wholesalers. It followed that a Rexallite’s best chance to show a profit from One Cent Sales was to feature items manufactured by his own organization. Preliminary surveys indicated the most popular product lines for sales were candy, stationery, dental items, toilet goods, and seasonal remedies such as cough syrup and spring tonics.

As favorable reports rolled in from agents trying the sales, Liggett became more convinced of the merchandising power of the One Cent Sale, but at the same time he was frustrated by the many Rexallites slow to embrace an idea that was proving effective. When war in Europe in 1914 ultimately brought economic depression to United Drug Co., as it did to commerce in general, Liggett decided the sale should be adopted by all Rexall stores as a “hypodermic to hold the volume of business.” As he did everything else, Liggett pushed the concept with all the vigor he could muster. In his April 17, 1915 “Dear Pardner” letter addressed to Rexall agents, he appended a stern postscript: “We all of us are learning something every day from somebody. I have learned a great deal from reading the sermons of Rev. Billy Sunday, including his maxim that it pays to deliver a message straight home without any fuss or frills. It is more emphatic that way and it gets results. So I am sending you a message, and am going to say it just as if I were talking to you in your store—WHY IN HELL DON'T YOU RUN A ONE CENT SALE?

Louis Liggett’s thorny message was hard to ignore, and so was United Drug’s new effort to make the sale more attractive. The company developed a comprehensive program that provided Rexallites with newspaper ad copy, merchandising kits, and stock order guidelines; and in the fall of 1915 initiated the first “Rexall Stores One Cent Sale” national magazine campaign.

Courtesy Dennis B. Worthen
A two-page spread in the September 25th issue of Collier’s pictured Rexall Tooth Paste, Harmony Shampoo, and Flor de Murat Cigars along with several other United Drug products, and urged readers to ask their local Rexall store when they would be running a sale. There were about 7000 independent and company owned stores nationwide in 1915, and Liggett was effectively marshaling consumers to motivate Rexallites to commit to a One Cent Sale.
Rexall store in Keene, New Hampshire preparing for One Cent Sale, October 1915
The campaign worked. With the advent of national advertising, dealer confidence improved dramatically. Large quantities of goods, purchased at lowest cost during such promotions, afforded stores a modest 20-22% gross profit. Of greater value was the semi-annual blitz of product and store identification, plus increased foot traffic. Success in retailing has always depended upon luring people into the store, and Rexall One Cent Sales did just that.
Window display of One Cent Sale merchandise. Dysle & Co, The Rexall Store, Marietta, Ohio, June 1916.
Ready to open the doors for One Cent Sale, 1930's.
 In 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, United Drug Co. instituted several changes in One Cent Sale promotions—changes that drew the attention of millions of new customers in a way that was intensely modern for the time. Starting November 2nd, two days before the Fall One Cent Sale began, electrically transcribed Voice of Rexall radio programs were broadcast each morning by some 200 U.S. and Canadian radio stations—15 minutes of music, drama, and sales messages calculated to reach a large portion of North America’s radio audience. To maximize return on advertising expense, all Rexall agencies, including Owl and Liggett’s company stores, staged the sale the same four days of the same week, Wednesday through Saturday. The commercial spots featured a young, feminine voice personifying “Little Red Cent” teamed with a masculine “Big Half Dollar” Rexallite, and continued until the sale was over.

Promotional for "Voice of Rexall" radio program, September 1931.

When the Fall 1931 radio promotion was a phenomenal success for all concerned, decision was made to try it again in Spring 1932. This time United Drug’s advertising manager, John E. Fontaine, arranged for both morning and evening radio programs to be aired over NBC’s Red and Orange networks, with supplementary stations to fill any gaps—all projected to reach an estimated 13 million radio sets. Starting in February the new evening shows were broadcast Sundays at 7:15 p.m. Festively dubbed The Rexall Radio Party, announcer Ben Grauer greeted listeners with the stirring introduction, “Ten thousand Rexall Druggists are on the air!” For several years the sales were known as Rexall Original Radio One Cent Sales.
Helena, Montana newspaper ad for April 1932 One Cent Sale.
Price card, 1940's.
Beginning in 1933, radio promotions for One Cent Sales were heard on the Rexall Magic Hour—a series of syndicated broadcasts that featured entertainers and musicians such as Kay Thompson, Jane Froman, Conrad Thibault, Dan Vorhees, comedian Arthur Voran, and violinist David Rubinoff. Voran’s specialty was the clever impersonation of celebrities like Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Eddie Cantor. But during the 1940’s and particularly after World War II, Rexall began sponsoring radio shows starring actual Hollywood personalities, most notably Ken Murray, Marie Wilson, Judy Canova, Ray Bolger, Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore.

Perhaps most memorable of the Rexall radio programs was the Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show which ran October 3, 1948 to June 4, 1950 on NBC Sunday nights. The avuncular “Rexall Family Druggist,” played by veteran film actor Griff Barnett, typically promoted the drug business at start and finish of the half-hour programs; and for the April 17, 1949 episode he touted the Spring One Cent Sale. To hear his messages plus enjoy an entertaining situation comedy where Phil, his sidekick Frankie Remley, and obnoxious grocery boy Julius Abruzzio get into another mess of trouble, click here (allow 5-10 seconds to load).
Harris/Faye radio show and One Cent Sale promotional ad, October 18, 1949.

Rexall Drug Co. sales personnel, April 1950, L to R: Louis Yager, Ethel Diserens, Bert Corgan, LeeRoy Lambert.
1950 Encased penny.

Immediately following the Spring 1954 One Cent Sale, Rexall Drug Company’s market research department sent detailed questionnaires to their stores requesting information on merchandise stocked and sold during the sale. To analyze the data and use it to plan future sales, punch cards were fed into a Remington Rand 409-2R electronic computer recently installed at Rexall headquarters in Los Angeles. In comparison to today’s integrated circuit microprocessors, the computing unit was a monster—7 feet wide, 6 feet in height and crammed with 1850 vacuum tubes to handle calculations. The Model 409-2 was developed under executive direction of General Leslie R. Groves of Manhattan Project fame. Later versions were marketed as UNIVAC 60/120.
Remington Rand 409-2R sensing-punching and computer units. At right, a computer specialist displays one of the many vacuum tube chassis.
Television viewing in the United States skyrocketed after World War II. In 1947 Motorola introduced their VT-71 Golden View tabletop television that sold for under $200, making TV affordable for millions of Americans. While less than 1% of U.S. households had a television set in 1946, the saturation was close to 60% in 1954. When TV network expansion achieved coast-to-coast coverage in the early 1950’s, the medium became very attractive to large commercial advertisers.

Rexall Drug Company’s first venture into network TV entertainment was Pinocchio, the 1957 live musical produced by David Susskind’s Talent Associates Ltd. in New York City. Presented as a one-hour program, this version of the popular fairy tale starred Mickey Rooney and Walter Slezak, broadcast over NBC on Sunday, October 13 at 6:30 p.m. to attract a family audience (and simulcast on NBC radio). Of the six minutes commercial time (miniscule by today’s standards) 70% was live and devoted to the upcoming Fall One Cent Sale. Some reviewers were offended by the integration of this small amount of advertising into the dramatic action (a technique that worked well on the Harris/Faye radio show), with one critic going so far as to paint the intrusion as “bringing the pig into the parlor.” Rexall president Justin Dart wrote to Susskind five days after the broadcast to personally express his delight with the production; and John Bowles, Rexall Division president, followed ten days later with his own letter thanking the producer for making “Pinocchio the talk of America” and the October One Cent Sale “the greatest in our 54-year history!”

October 1960 One Cent Sale ad and April 1961 TV Guide featuring "National Velvet."
Rexall sponsored only one TV series—National Velvet, telecast over NBC at 8 p.m. on Sundays. MGM produced the weekly half-hour show, modeling it after their 1944 film starring Elizabeth Taylor. The program ran for two seasons, September 18, 1960 to April 2, 1962 (54 episodes), and starred Lori Martin in the role of Velvet Brown, a 12-year-old farmgirl whose dream was to race her spirited gelding in the Grand National steeplechase in Liverpool, England. The TV show was launched, per usual, to coincide with a One Cent Sale. An edited version of the pilot episode, “The Raffle,” was created for preview by Rexall dealers. In one section, Rexall executives Mel Erickson and John Bowles meet Lori Martin and producer Robert Maxwell to announce a prize contest for naming Velvet’s horse. Two other members of the cast, Ann Doran and Arthur Space, discuss the program and mention Rexall products they use—Super Plenamins and Thru Liniment. At the close Lori adds, “Don’t forget the One Cent Sale.” To see these scenes, click here.

Malcolm X on New York City sidewalk, April 30, 1962.        Gordon Parks photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution.
The last TV special sponsored by Rexall Drug Co. was Hanna-Barbera’s animated movie, The New Alice in Wonderland (or What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?), written by comedian Bill Dana who portrayed his Jose Jimenez character as the White Knight. The 60-minute show, a modernized adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic that substitutes a TV screen for the looking glass, was broadcast on the ABC network, Wednesday, March 30, 1966. When Alice bounces a ball for her dog, it magically disappears through the living room television set, and the dog and Alice chase after it, entering Wonderland. Animated commercials for the Rexall One Cent Sale reprise the celebrity-voiced characters. To see one of the ads, click here.

Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs, The Today Show.
Integrated commercials, such as those for Rexall One Cent Sales, were not always part of dramatic presentations. Hugh Downs, Barbara Walters, Joe Garagiola and Frank Blair alternated pitching Rexall products as part of their news, weather and interview duties for NBC’s The Today Show. On the October 15, 1969 morning edition, Hugh Downs announced details of the 10-day Fall One Cent Sale starting on the 16th, including a bonus—decorative, pressure-sensitive "Daffy Daisies" for each $1 spent on Rexall brand sale merchandise. Click here to watch Hugh Downs selling a One Cent Sale, live!