What’s Old Is New As Retailers Search for Ideas

As they plumb their bags of tricks looking for the magic that will ignite sales, retailers are sticking their arms deeper and deeper into the sacks of yesteryear.

Toys “R” Us has lifted out a $1-$2-$3 Fun! Shop concept that is, in effect, a regurgitation of the power alley of low-priced, often seasonal, merchandise that customers had to traverse after they entered the store and before they encountered gondolas stacked high with toys and games. The “new” departments will feature approximately 100 items for $1, $2 or $3 with themes such as dinosaurs, games, fun toys, princess dress-up, musical instruments, art supplies and party favors.

During the less politically correct days of the 1970s and 1980s, these types of low-priced, but high-margined goods were known as “shut up toys.” Parents would spend a couple of dollars to bribe their kids to behave properly inside a store. It was seen as a win-win-win for all: The store made a sale, the child earned a reward, and parents bought some peace and quiet at a nominal cost.

With its market share tumbling, Sears last month gave an added push to a buyer’s protection program for children’s clothing. Labeled KidVantage Club, the program offers “user” protection to parents. Sears will replace an apparel item that wears out before a child outgrows it.

It’s an appealing idea, especially at a time when parents are looking to extend the value of their investment in their children. KidVantage actually began back in 1991 as a way to sell more of the company’s Toughskins children’s line. The never-wear-out guarantee, however, failed to excite sufficient allegiance during a period when the appeal of brand-name jeans—even for toddlers—far out-weighed that of Sears’ private-label line.

But kids still pierce their pants at the knees, so the program retains value. Sears has extended buyer protection to almost all labels carried. In addition, buyers receive 15% discounts on future purchases once they buy $100 worth of clothing or shoes.

Sears is pushing in-store activity. KidVantage can be accessed only through a store visit. It is not available online. Considering that comp-store sales tumbled 9.5% in 2008, and an even greater 11% in the fourth quarter, Sears might have felt compelled to do something to generate more in-store traffic, hence the pre-Easter advertising blitz.

Resurrecting old marketing ideas is not wrong, even if they failed to work the first time. New twists on the old themes, plus new target customers, can alter their impact.

To be truly effective over the long term, marketing initiatives must be grounded in foundational themes. They must be built around trends, not fads. Marketers must position their companies and products against demographic and economic trends such as household formations and household size, housing starts and home sales, employment data, interest and debt rates, shifts in ethnic and age population segments, plus other data that reveal broad and pinpointed opportunities to exploit, and pitfalls to avoid.

Retailers should resist writing off an idea because they tried it before, and it didn’t work. These are very different times than just a year ago. Retailers would do well to dust off their archives and search for promotions that can bring value to their customers.