I had the pleasure of visiting one of the great marketing success stories in America on a recent vacation chaperoning church youth. We stopped by Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. It’s a fine tourist trap, which is something I can well appreciate, but the backstory is one every marketer should know.
In 1931, Ted and Dorothy Hustead bought the only drugstore in a town on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands. Business was bad and the reason was pretty evident. There were only 326 people in the whole town; 326 impoverished people who had seen their financial fortunes, modest as they were, wiped out by a combination of the drought and great depression.
Later that year, Ted found himself standing outside the store in the frigid winter air, when a rusty Tin Lizzy rattled along the two-lane highway. He wished they would stop, if only for a cup of coffee. They didn’t. Main Street Wall was deserted.
In the following months, business did not improve. It would have been a simple matter and perhaps natural order of things for Wall Drug to fail. The Husteads continued to struggle…not starving but also seeing no reason to think the enterprise would ever succeed. Ted decided he would give the business five years.
By the time the summer of 1936 came around, the business hadn’t grown much at all. The five-year trial would be up in December.
As was typical, business was slow one hot Sunday in July. Ted, Dorothy and their baby were minding the perpetually empty store when Dorothy announced she and the baby were going to go take a nap in the little room in the back of the store that served as their apartment. When she came back a short time later, Ted asked if the heat had kept her awake and she responded that it was the noise of the jalopies going by on the two-lane highway.
Over the past five years, little by little travel had increased on the highway running near Wall Drug. Lots of people were heading west. Mount Rushmore was taking shape and becoming a tourist attraction. The Badlands had just become a national park. There were a lot of reasons traffic had picked up, but in the days before air conditioning, the prairie heat was unrelenting for the traveler.
That’s when the Husteads hit upon the big idea. They had plenty of water and ice. The travelers were hot and thirsty. Ted hired a high school boy, and the pair headed out to the highway with a stack of hand painted signs promoting free ice water at Wall Drug. By the time they got back, people were already lined up, and Dorothy was running around trying to keep pace with the demand.
For hours the pair poured gallons of ice water, sold ice cream cones and gave highway directions.
When the day was done the couple was pooped, but they had found their secret sauce. Wall Drug was by no means the first drug store to give away ice water, but actively promoting it made all the difference. Business grew to the point that they had to hire eight employees by the next summer. It continued to grow and a virtual city popped up around it. The store sells sundries, souvenirs, ice cream, jewelry, western hats and it still has a full-service pharmacy. It also operates a restaurant, art gallery and has more classic kitsch than you could imagine, from giant dinosaurs to pony-sized jackalopes. Today, Wall Drug can draw as many as 20,000 people on a good summer day, including me.
I love a good marketing story and Wall Drug certainly fits. It’s a story of business people who had a problem (lack of sufficient business to grow, a stagnant market), looked at potential new markets (travelers), considered their assets (ice water, lack of competition), and promoted a service that met the needs of the consumer. It transformed a flagging business into a great American success story.
Today, Wall Drug is a sprawling retail complex covering about a city block, but you can still get free ice water and nickel coffee. If you ever get to South Dakota, I thoroughly suggest you stop by Wall Drug, which is operated by the grandchildren of Ted and Dorothy.
In the meantime, I suggest you look at your company and ponder what your free ice water might be.