Changing With the Times

September 29, 2010by Ann Dencker

Staying Relevant by Changing With the Times

Across the United States there are thousands of quirky little businesses that fade away as fast as they open. In Wall, South Dakota there is one of these quirky businesses that should have faded away decades ago, but hasn’t. Wall Drug has survived for almost 80 years despite the odds. So what’s their secret? From my vantage point, they are adept at changing with the times while keeping their eye on what their consumer wants.

When Wall Drug opened in the 1930s, business was bad. No one was exiting off the highway to stop at Wall Drug. They thought about their consumer, hot and thirsty after driving for hours in the intense summer sun. They put out signs offering “Free Ice Water,” and the cars started exiting the highway to go to Wall Drug.

My first visit there was about 20 years ago on a road trip across Montana and the Dakotas. At the time, there were signs all along the interstate telling me how many miles to Wall Drug (325 miles to Wall Drug…170 miles to Wall Drug…20 miles to Wall Drug). Without even knowing what it was, I felt compelled to stop.

By simply asserting that Wall Drug is worth counting down the miles, they drew attention and got people to stop. That same approach feels less likely to work today.

On my second visit to Wall Drug last month, I noticed a change in many of the signs leading up to it. Rather than counting down the miles, Wall Drug now uses borrowed equity. They use national media names to make the point that they’re an attraction worth stopping at. The signs I saw last month were things such as “Wall Drug – as seen on the Today Show” or “Wall Drug – as shown in Time Magazine.”

According to the Travel Channel (as in “Wall Drug – as seen on the Travel Channel”), Wall Drug gets 2.2 million visitors a year. That’s more than the entire population of South Dakota.

It’s gratifying how a quirky little business like Wall Drug can survive and even stay relevant by changing with the times and keeping their consumer front and center.

And for those of you who are familiar with Wall Drug, yes, I picked up my free Wall Drug bumper sticker as I walked out eating my heavenly homemade donut, drinking my 5-cent coffee.

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