Some, like Wal-Mart and Kmart, recognized the efficiencies in ordering, stocking and planning that bar code technology supplied. But they often found themselves haggling with soft goods and other suppliers to make them affix the black-and-white icon on packages or labels.
Some retailers, vexed by the situation, did it themselves. But they warned manufacturers to get with the program or face expulsion from their stores. Retailers held the clout. As such, in 1986, a uniform product code was endorsed by the then National Retail Merchants Association for discount and department stores.
One vendor ahead of the curve in the '80s was Procter & Gamble. Clearly in tune with the growing power of the retailers, the packaged-goods company began rejiggering its sales force in order to transact business more smoothly with its top retail accounts, including Wal-Mart, in 1989.
Anyone involved with selling en masse knows P&G's reputation as well as its influence on other marketers in the arena outside packaged goods.
When its corporate sensors detect change, P&G is not afraid to switch gears in order to get ahead of the situation and turn it into an advantage.
P&G is now dealing with a similar situation with the media.
Consolidation among networks and entertainment, cable, telephone and Internet companies is transforming the media landscape. Some advertisers and agencies fear they may be left defending the low ground.
Coincidentally, P&G is reviewing the possibility of consolidating its $1.2 billion television budget at one agency or buying service.
P&G, whose spending represents about 3 percent to 4 percent of the $36 billion or so that Competitive Media Reporting estimates was spent on TV in 1996, doesn't wield the same leverage in media as it did in the retail aisles.
It does, however, control the purse strings. That is, it oversees the country's biggest advertising budget and, as one contender in the P&G review says, it is viewed as a "bellwether company."
One critical issue the contenders face in the P&G pitch is the client's increased interest in media planning. With its brand offerings jammed into a few dayparts, P&G is now said to have more of an interest in what it buys, not how much it buys, and is looking to import some of the media planning strategy it applies in Asia and Europe to this market.
Not everything P&G does is an instant success.
Witness its coupon experiment. But some feel, given the pace of change in the media world, that other clients will pay close attention to the results P&G gets after it selects its media agency, which is expected to happen in December.
"There won't be a CEO who won't turn to his people and say, 'Why aren't we doing what P&G is doing,' " says one P&G observer. "They are going to do something I believe will be the catalyst to [accelerate] the way companies conduct media negotiations."