Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Fly Swatter Saga

Some things are such a regular part of life that you think you can just go out and buy one if you need it. But I couldn’t buy a fly swatter for any amount of money — not at any supermarket I went to, not at a drug store, not at a discount store, not at a hardware store.

In case you’re in the same predicament, I’ll tell you where I finally found one: in Walmart, at the back of the grocery section, in the cleaning supplies, on the top shelf in a display of insecticides. The price, 92 cents for a 2-pack, tells me that the store was making a pretty healthy markup.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gone out to buy a common item only to find that it is no longer common in stores. If you want to buy a single-line, plug-in telephone, you might find yourself driving all over town too. Ditto for a basic, mid-quality computer scanner. Or a pair of shoelaces.

How can common household items become hard to get? How does the search for a fly swatter turn into a saga? It’s easier to understand when you look at the marketing side of the retail process. Everyone who gets trained in marketing is taught that they need to have an angle to get ahead of the competition, or what’s called a Unique Selling Proposition, or USP. Business experts tell how important it is to dazzle, surprise, and delight your customers. And the biggest marketing concept in the past century is upsell, a nice short word for steering customers toward big-ticket high-markup items so you can rake in the big bucks. As long as businesses believe in upsell, the big-ticket value-added items will never disappear from the shelves — there is no problem getting a four-line telephone, or a telephone with a digital answering machine built in. But the item you really want, the basic, no-frills telephone, won’t thrill you, isn’t unique in any way, and sells at a low price, so retailers decide not to carry it at all.

Of course, it is a problem for a retailer whenever customers go away disappointed at the gaps in the merchandising. When a supermarket decides to stop selling yeast, the 99 percent of customers who don’t make bread may not even notice, but for the 1 percent who do, it weakens their idea of the store as a place where they can buy food. They become more alert to alternatives, which makes them more likely to visit the competitors. If I had found a fly swatter in any of the first 15 stores I visited, I wouldn’t have had a reason to go into Walmart.

The irony, of course, is that these common, familiar items are disappearing from retail even as the United States has an embarrassing amount of retail activity. There are more unique items than ever at retail, spread out across billions of square feet. When common items that people want are suddenly not sold in stores, it represents a peculiar kind of breakdown. Retailers are competing so hard that they’re forgetting to compete.