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.
|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.|
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|
|Rexall store in Keene, New Hampshire preparing for One Cent Sale, October 1915|
|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.|
|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.|
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.|
|October 1960 One Cent Sale ad and April 1961 TV Guide featuring "National Velvet."|
|Malcolm X on New York City sidewalk, April 30, 1962. Gordon Parks photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution.|
|Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs, The Today Show.|