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Memories of a legend

Dave Nichol understood what his customers wanted most: a great food experience coupled with good value

The week he opened the first No Frills, in July 1978, in Toronto, Dave Nichol told Canadian Grocer that he wasn’t sure at first the hard-discount format would work.

Only after seeing new No Name products (launched a few months earlier) flying off of Loblaw’s shelves was he convinced. “After the success of generics, I don’t believe in hard and fast rules,” he said.

Nichol, the longtime Loblaw Supermarkets president, was innovative because he didn’t follow rules. The Chatham, Ont., native who appeared in TV ads for the grocer’s President’s Choice and No Name brands in the ’80s and ’90s, passed away last month. He was 73.

Nichol helped build President’s Choice into one of Canada’s top brands. He also introduced the Insider’s Report, a flyer that told stories of the products he brought to customers.

“He was one of the first to have the concept to sell the story behind the product with the Insider’s Report,” says Queen’s School of Business marketing professor Ken Wong.

Thanks to TV, Nichol became the most well-known grocery executive in Canada. In dozens of ads he explained the virtues of the latest and greatest President’s Choice items–from the Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie to Memories of Kobe Marinade.

“It’s five o’clock,” he started out in one ad. “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?”

Nichol’s solution: “Stroll over to a store that sells President’s Choice and pick up a package of marinated chicken portions.”

Paul Uys, whom Nichol recruited from Woolworths in South Africa in the 1980s, says Nichol’s brilliance sprang from three characteristics: he was a foodie (“He had an incredible palate,” Uys says); he understood what consumers wanted and how to speak to them; and he was a marketing genius.

“He had a real keen sense of what was going to sell,” Uys says.

Nichol joined Loblaw in 1972 and was appointed president of Loblaw Supermarkets four years later. In 1978 he launched No Name. The cheap, everyday product line was a response to food inflation, which in 1978 had reached 16%.

As the economy improved in the 1980s, consumers wanted better products. Loblaw responded with President’s Choice and Nichol began appearing in TV ads.

“He was like a folk hero to consumers and clearly put premium private label on the map in this country,” says former Sobeys president Bill McEwan.

After leaving Loblaw, in 1993, Nichol worked for a subsidiary of Cott Corporation. He left in the late ’90s to start his own retail consulting firm, Dave Nichol & Associates.

At Loblaw, Nichol promoted good food but never forgot to hammer home value, too. In one 1989 ad, he pulled out an independent taste test comparing 11 brands of ground coffee. President’s Choice was top, with No Name tied for fourth. This meant No Name was “preferred to six national brands that cost up to 50% more,” he said.

Then came 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, of course, knew the answer.

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