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Dave Nichol, Loblaw's famed president and pitchman, dies

Nichol helped turn Loblaw into Canada's largest grocer and became a household name through his TV ads

Long-time Loblaw president Dave Nichol has died at the age of 73.

The native of Chatham, Ont., who died on Sunday, appeared in TV ads for the grocery chain’s President’s Choice and No Name brands in the '80s and '90s.

Nichol helped build President’s Choice into one of Canada’s top labels.

Many of the products Nichol is responsible for can still be found on the shelf, including the Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Nichol also introduced the Insider’s Report magazine in the early 1980′s, a flyer that told stories of the products he brought to consumers.

"He was one of the first to have the concept to sell the story behind the product with the Insider's Report," said Queen's School of Business marketing professor, Ken Wong. "It was his treasure hunt that he was sharing with everyone else."

Through his TV ads, Nichol became the most well-known grocery executive in Canada, and probably the only one most Canadians could name at all.

The ads generally featured Nichol explaining the latest and greatest President’s Choice items–from the aforementioned Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie to Memories of Kobe Marinade.

The ads were simple in their delivery and usually featured a bespectacled Nichol talking newscaster-style in front of a video screen of product photos and videos.

“It’s five o’clock, your wife phones and says her boss enjoyed the Szechwan Peanut Sauce so much that tonight he wants to find out how good you are at barbecuing. She tells you they’ll be home in one hour. You don’t have anything prepared. What do you do?” was how Nichol started off one TV spot.

Nichol, of course, had the answer to this conundrum: “Stroll over to a store that sells President’s Choice and pick up a package of marinated chicken portions,” he said, pointing out two recently added flavours: Spicy Thai and Szechwan Peanut.

Ken Hardy, a marketing professor emeritus at Western University's Richard Ivey Business School, said consumers bought President's Choice products largely because of Nichol.

``He was an articulate spokesperson who made it interesting,'' he said. ``He was a self promoter at the same time. He gave (products) a face, in this case, the President's face, and that was reassuring.''

The passion Nichol showed for food in commercials was no gimmick. He really did love good meals and creating products consumers would enjoy.

“He was a real foodie, a culinary expert if you like, who knew more about what makes good food than he ever got credit for,” said George Condon, Canadian Grocer’s editor during Nichol's heyday at Loblaw.

“At Loblaw,” Condon continued,” he was a visionary who foresaw the consumers' coming interest in serving great tasting foods without having to prepare them…just take them from the store shelf to the oven.”

Nichol joined Loblaw in 1972 when the company was generally perceived to be struggling and not doing nearly as well as the country’s top grocer, Dominion.

The turnaround began in March of that year when W. Galen Weston, son of Loblaw’s owner Garfield Weston, was named president of the grocery chain.

He soon brought aboard three people who would help turn Loblaw’s into Canada’s top grocer and one of the most innovative and admired in the supermarket world.

One was Richard Currie, who eventually became Loblaw Companies' president; another was designer Don Watt. He created a new look for Loblaws stores as well as design the No Name and President’s Choice brands.

The other man, of course, was Nichol. Hired as an executive vice-president at Loblaw Companies, he was appointed president of Loblaw Supermarkets Ltd., which included the Ontario Loblaw stores, in 1976.

Two years later Loblaw launched its No Name private-label line. The inexpensive everyday product line, with generic yellow and black packaging, was a response to out-of-control food inflation, which in 1978 had reached 16%.

By July of that year Nichol turned No Name into a discount store called No Frills.

“We felt that if customers were able to do without the frills associated with brand-name products to save money, then perhaps they would do the same with a no-frills food store,” he told Canadian Grocer after opening the first No Frills in Scarborough, Ont.

As inflation eased and the economy improved in the 1980s, consumers wanted better products. Loblaw responded with President’s Choice and eventually surpassed its rival Dominion in sales.

"Dave’s passion for food and his vision helped to transform the way Canadians eat, and he has left a tremendous legacy that endures in the company today,” Loblaw’s executive chairman, Galen G. Weston, said in a statement issued by Loblaw this morning.

Bill McEwan, former president of Sobeys, first came to know Nichol when McEwan was working at Ferraro’s Super Valu Stores, a franchise of Loblaw. He later dealt with him when Nichol was a president at Loblaw and McEwan was with Coca-Cola. “He was indeed a superior marketer, without question.”

"He was like a folk hero to consumers, and clearly put premium private label on the map in this country and established one of the premium private labels in all of North America. And he set a high standard for what private label development needed to be,” McEwan said.

After leaving Loblaws in 1993, Nichol worked for a subsidiary of Cott Corporation, developing private frozen food products, mainly for grocery brands like Safeway. He left in the late 90s to start his own retail consulting firm, Dave Nichol & Associates.

Though he became known for his TV spots and Insider’s Reports, Nichol also made sure that Loblaw was a tough competitor on price. Many of his ads reinforced the notion that Loblaw stores offered value.

And he didn’t shy away from comparing the value of his own PC and No-Name products to that of name-brand rivals and other supermarkets.

In one 1989 TV commercial he pulled out a copy of the Toronto Star and results of a taste test the newspaper had done comparing 11 brands of packaged ground coffee.

President’s Choice ranked No 1, but No Name was tied for fourth, a fact Nichol told viewers meant that No Name was “preferred to six national brands that cost up to 50% more.”

Then Nichol delivered the pitch: “If you really care about the quality of the coffee you drink but you’re not currently shopping at a store that sells the President’s blend or No Name ground coffee, then isn’t it time you switched supermarkets.”

Viewers knew the answer.

“Some loved him. Some feared him. Some didn't embrace him. But no one can deny what he taught us through his successes and failures about how to be innovative, brave and bold. His impact was, and continues to be, enormous,” said Wong.

Though known as a marketer, Nichol was also a savvy everyday grocer who knew the importance of getting the basics of the store right. "Without a good produce section, you shouldn't even open your door," he often said.

Nichol was also willing to change his mind when presented with the facts.

At first he was skeptical that shoppers would visit a bare-bones store format like No Frills. Only when he saw how well the No Name private-label line was doing did he come around, he told Canadian Grocer in 1978.

“After the success of generics, I don’t believe in hard and fast rules.”

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