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When Brian Alger bought the rights to the Pop Shoppe in 2002, he inherited a brand best known as a once popular discount soda. In the 1970s and eighties, the soft drink was sold at its own stand-alone stores where consumers could mix and match reusable bottles in cases of 24.
When Alger orchestrated the resurrection and return of the Pop Shoppe to the market a couple of years later (after a two-decade absence), the new brand bore little resemblance to what had made it one of the most popular soft drink names in North America during its heyday.
Alger, a 36-year-old Toronto-area entrepreneur who couldn't get enough of the Pop Shoppe's 20 different flavors as a kid, says he has no intention of trying to recreate the days when red Pop Shoppe cases of 12 and 24 bottles were mainstays at countless homes throughout North America. Even if it was brought back as a discount brand, he says, it couldn't survive because store shelves are overflowing with white label soda already.
"I couldn't compete with them on pricing," he says. "They're able to buy on such large volumes and operate on low margins. What I want [it] to be is that soda you treat yourself to, the one you're not going to buy every day," he says, noting he's using Stewart's, a US-based retro soda, as his model.
Alger says adults who grew up on the Pop Shoppe's Lime Rickey and Black Cherry won't be turned off by a slightly higher price than mainstream soft drinks. Hopefully, they won't mind buying them in single servings either.
"You never bought the pop as a kid so you never knew the price. But you knew you liked it; you liked the brand. You'll pay CN$ 1.49 (US$ 1.30) for a bottle of pop [today]. It could have cost $10,000 back then, I didn't care. For me, it evokes some great memories. I buy sponge toffee for $1 a square that I used to buy for a dime when I was a kid," he says.
Charlie Finnbogason, managing partner of Franklin Retail Advisors in Winnipeg, Canada, says playing the nostalgia card often results in a short-term boost for a product. The challenge is to maintain it in the long run.
"When you talk about nostalgia, it doesn't have to be because it was an outstanding product; it just has to be something familiar. ‘Oh, boy, I haven't had this in a long time. Let's pick up a case.' But nostalgia can have a short life. You may buy a product once for those reasons and then go back to your old one," Finnbogason says. "There's a hankering to see if things taste the same as they did years ago but they very rarely do."
Alger says that's not the case, because he's using the identical recipes from days gone by. He doesn't think it's too much of a stretch to reposition the Pop Shoppe at the upper end of the market because there are numerous examples of discount brands in various industries that have undergone complete transformations and emerged successfully in the penthouse.
"The Austin Mini used to be a cheap economical car. Then BMW bought it and brought it back, and it's not a cheap car anymore," he says. "The only thing we have to change is people's minds."
He says when he first considered breathing new life into the brand, he looked at re-establishing dedicated Pop Shoppe outlets, selling reusable bottles, but decided against it because he didn't feel it would be convenient for consumers.
"It would do no justice to the brand. In three months, the stores would be closed. That business model ceased to exist for a reason -- they were losing money," he says
At its peak, the Pop Shoppe was selling one million bottles a day at 1,000 locations across Canada, and some of its flavors (orange for instance) were outselling the long-time market leaders (such as Orange Crush). In the US, the Pop Shoppe was available in about 15 states and the company had gone public. But when grocery stores instituted their own house brands and it became more convenient for consumers to pick up their pop on their weekly shopping trip, the Pop Shoppe ceased to be a destination location and went out of business in 1983.
Today, seven original Pop Shoppe flavors -- an eighth will be unveiled next year -- are available to varying degrees in all ten provinces across Canada. They're primarily sold in convenience and grocery stores as well as restaurants and cafes. Some bars even use Pop Shoppe pop as a mix in alcoholic drinks, such as Black Cherry and vodka, Lime Rickey and gin, and rum and Pineapple.
But while the Pop Shoppe will appeal to kids who grew up watching "Welcome Back Kotter" and "The Partridge Family" on television, what about those who spend their time listening to iPods and text messaging?
The answer, Alger says, lies in playing up the fact that the brand's distinctive painted-on, red and white labels are decidedly old school.
"We've got a retro look and it seems to be working. Kids that have no idea what the Pop Shoppe is are buying the brand, which is fantastic. They don't have an issue with paying $1.39 for a 355 ml bottle of pop. If we can create new markets because people perceive it as a new brand, so be it," he says.
"Today, so many marketing companies are creating brands using hardcore graphics. I don't think it's necessary because the kids get de-sensitized. We've stuck with our two-color logo, simplistic imagery."
While the Pop Shoppe has done some billboard advertising in the greater Toronto area, most of its promotional material is of the point-of-sale kind, both on shop floors and in their coolers. Word of mouth has also resulted in the Pop Shoppe website being an effective marketing tool, he says.
One initiative that has played well with both target markets is a 1978 Volkswagen van that Alger had restored and now drives to different promotional and sampling events. "The kids think it's cool and I've had 40-year-olds come up to me and tell me they owned one as teenagers. They both think it's a cool vehicle for different reasons. It seems to be a good fit. We don't try to change anything about the brand. It has that retro image to it," he says.
It also helps that many staff members of newspapers and magazines across Canada appear to have grown up on the Pop Shoppe, as its arrival in new markets is met with favorable media attention. For example, Macleans, a national weekly magazine, recently listed the Pop Shoppe as one of the top 27 reasons why Canadians celebrate the country's birthday on 1 July. Two other reasons are Toronto's Natalie Glebova winning the Miss Universe crown and Victoria's Steve Nash being named the NBA's most valuable player earlier this year.
Now after a year of operations in Canada, Alger is ready to make a run for the border. He says he'll be looking for distributors for all 50 states when he attends the National Association of Convenience Stores tradeshow in Las Vegas next November. Even though the Pop Shoppe didn't attain quite the same notoriety in the US during its heyday, Alger says his expansion strategy will be the same as in Canada.
"We're just chugging along. I haven't had any expectations so far. I just wanted to keep from going broke. I get five or six e-mails a day from people telling me they're happy to see the brand back. Now the job is to market the brand and get it to the generation that doesn't know it," he says.