MARCUS: Use creativity to lure crowds to cities

Morton Marcus
May 8, 2010
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Morton Marcus

It was a cool Thursday morning with a suggestion of rain, but no actual precipitation. The time was 5:30 a.m.! Semi-retired men in good health and of sound mind normally do not awaken, except for nature’s call, at this hour.

The excursion director, however, had issued the summons and was threatening disciplinary action if all feet were not on the floor immediately. By 6 a.m., the garage door was closing and the blue bargain-buggy was headed for Interstate 69. Less than two hours later, a $4 fee was being paid for the privilege of parking in the massive lot adjacent to the Fort Wayne Coliseum.

There was a line of women that stretched alongside this multi-purpose exhibition facility. Every second, the line lengthened with more women cheerfully joining their eager sisters waiting for the Annual Vera Bradley Outlet Sale.

Let me not misrepresent the situation. There were men there. Perhaps one of every hundred people was of the male persuasion. But this was the feminine mystique triumphant, a demonstration of extraordinary branding, and a consummate celebration of consumerism.

How many women were in line? I don’t know. In pairs, they snaked through the parking lot. Up one side of an aisle and out the other, the line twisted around to the next aisle and on and on. The cool weather was a blessing, but temperatures in the 90s or a torrential rain would not have diminished the enthusiasm of the breath-bated, pre-baited buyers.

They came from Cleveland and Cincinnati. They arrived from Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky the night before and filled the hotels of Fort Wayne. Some came from Florida with lists made by friends and relatives. Others were on their cell phones, taking orders with the professional cool of market makers in the pits of the Chicago Board of Trade.

Stories were told of vans, holding six people, each prepared to buy the daily limit of $2,500 for each of the four days the sale would last. These were said to be resellers who would be on eBay within hours or holding bag parties in their homes the following week. Some might even be preparing (horrors) to resell in retail stores these prizes obtained at discounts said to be as deep as 70 percent.

Vera Bradley is a women-owned Indiana business that produces handbags and sundry containers, placemats, napkins and headbands. The fabric patterns are suggestive of the Victorian era. My grandmothers would have considered them old-fashioned. However, they are beloved by today’s women of ages ranging from texting teens to sizzling 60s.

The line began to move just after 8 a.m., but it grew faster than the coliseum absorbed shoppers. The spirit was joyous. The ushers (older men, well-rehearsed in herding) kept the line orderly. They also distributed a four-page orange, pink and white brochure that gave the waiting women opportunity to plan their attacks on the stock when they were entitled to enter the magic portal.

After an hour and a half in line, I was paroled without entering the holy-of-holies. Less than an hour later, at a nearby coffee shop, the call came and I promptly retrieved our resident shopper with her collection of granddaughter gifts.

The experience of the Vera Bradley Outlet Sale proved again that American businesses can be successful if they offer products consumers want. Indiana communities can enjoy the benefits of that success if they are populated by imaginative and persistent entrepreneurs. Now all we need do is encourage imagination, persistence and risk-taking.

Hmmm. Is that the reason Indiana has a state lottery and numerous casinos?•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.


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