Monday, August 30, 2010

#20 - Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs! Part 2

"And she said, 'Let's put up a sign, let's put up a sign on the highway and, you know, try to encourage them to come into our business.' And he said, 'Well what should we advertise?' And she said, ' Let's advertise for the ice water. It's 110 degrees in the shade and we've got ice and we've got water and gosh maybe that'll get them in the door.' Well my grandfather thought that was a little corny but it just might work." - Ted Hustead, grandson of founder Ted Hustead, explaining the history of the Wall Drug signs

Free ice water. Actually a hand-painted wooden sign offering it to thirsty travelers -- that was the simple yet brilliant marketing strategy Ted and Dorothy Hustead used to turn a $3000 investment in a small town pharmacy and sundry outlet into a multi-million dollar retail entertainment business called the Wall Drug Store.

Founded in 1931 in the tiny western South Dakota town of Wall, the Wall Drug Store has developed into a 76,000 square foot tourist attraction that draws up to 20,000 people a day. Visitors from all over the world flock to the 22 store complex to shop for western items, Native American artifacts, fine art, decorative accessories, and gifts and collectibles. Guests are still treated to free ice water and coffee at 5 cents a cup . . . and to think this all began with just a carefully placed highway sign or two!

Wall Drug founder Ted Hustead was a marketing master. He realized a successful campaign focused on the 4 P's: the product, the price, the promotion, and the place or distribution channel. His product was ice water, the price was free, the promotion was roadside advertising, and the distribution channel - the place - was his drugstore. He was also savvy enough to recognize that if a few signs were effective right beside town, think of how valuable they'd be if he put them up in all the neighboring states too!

The Wall Drug sign collection numbered 280 at its peak, but in 1965, the Highway Beautification Act threatened the very heart of Hustead's enterprise. Outdoor advertising along the interstate was to be regulated and those billboards that were never awarded permits were to be removed. Wall Drug stood to lose 240 of its road signs under the act, but fortunately funds that were earmarked to compensate sign owners ran out in 1983 and the law was never enforced.

Photographing all the westbound Wall Drug signs on Interstate 90 proved to be a daunting task. Sunrise came early the morning of July 7, 2010, and I was greeted by a line of fast moving thunderstorms while departing from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at the start of my journey. Luckily the showers were brief and soon I was experiencing classic midwestern summer weather: sunny, hot, and humid conditions. Unlike the eastbound leg of the shoot, the signs seemed to appear quickly and were more densely packed together, not allowing much time for reflection or study, just documentation. But the slogans were more interesting and so was the artwork, and I found myself daydreaming about my family's vacation here many years ago. My goal was to reach the Wall Drug Store before noon with all the signs safely filed on my camera's card (again, to avoid any backlit situations), but given the fact there were 96 of them out there, I settled for fill flashing the remaining few and a late lunch/early dinner at the 500 seat cafe. So that's my story and now there's only one question left to ask: Have You Dug Wall Drug?

(Note: Special thanks once again to Kevin Beckstrom, master cartoonist and my good friend, for his wonderful contribution to this month's post. Please check out more of his magnificent work at: