Shoppers never forget

Sometimes retailers need to remember that it is often the products on the shelves that end up making the biggest difference in the consumer’s mind. Two incidents, one in person and one on the pages of The New York Times, confirms this theory, at least in my mind.

The personal event was a discussion with an acquaintance over his purchase of a toy submarine for his fish tank at Wal-Mart about a year ago. The product, which he said cost about $10, was bought more or less as a gimmick help get his children excited about an otherwise not very interesting fish tank with three pretty boring goldfish.
The toy sub did not work very well from the start. It immediately sank to the bottom, turned upside down and, he swears, almost decapitated one of the goldfish. Within about an hour, the sub was out of the tank and was soon forgotten behind a pile of other toys in the kid’s playroom.

The second event was replayed in The Times in late March. In an article about energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs, The Times told the story of how an environmentally friendly couple purchased 16 compact fluorescents from a Costco store. It was a disaster from the start. One bulb did not work immediately and several others quit within hours. Making this worse is that these bulbs usually cost a lot more than traditional light bulbs and are designed to last for years—in fact some say for as long as six to eight years—with regular use.

Much of the rest of the article concentrated on the fact that bulb manufacturers are still working out the kinks on these relatively new items and consumers may experience a few bumps in the road as this technology takes hold.

I look at both of these events from a different angle. My view is that consumers are not going to remember the manufacturers of these items—the purchaser of the toy submarine threw out the packaging immediately and had no idea the name of the company that produced the product. Instead, they place nearly all the blame on the retailer that is either not smart enough or too lazy to examine the quality of the merchandise they carry.

You see, long after that package is thrown away with the manufacturer’s name on it, the memory of shopping the retail outlet for the product remains. So the lightbulb may not work and the toy sub for the fish tank may sink to the bottom, but for the consumer purchasing these items, it is simply, in these cases, the fault of Wal-Mart and Costco for stocking the bum merchandise.

Of course, this puts retailers in an interesting predicament. They don’t make the products. They simply obtain them and stock them on their shelves. But retailers do make the decision on what products to stock and what companies to do business with.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the merchant to do business with suppliers that not only support their products with merchandising dollars but make sure the products perform as advertised.

As long stated in this space, trade shows can make the difference. Retailers can get a good look at everything available on the market and determine the good from the bad. For nonfoods, the GMDC conferences, including the upcoming general merchandise event that starts on May 29 in Grapevine, Texas, can also make a difference. Events such as these give retailers a chance to spend an allotted amount of time with suppliers and learn more about the products they’re selling.

The bottom line is that retailers cannot depend on suppliers to make sure they produce the best quality merchandise. While most manufacturers are looking for long-term relationships with retailers and consumers, some are simply looking for the quick buck. So retailers have to do their homework to make sure that they and their shoppers are not taken for a ride. The ramifications of failing to do so can be significant. 

Seth Mendelson can be reached at 212-979-4879 or at

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