FORGET PEORIA - WILL THEY BUY IT IN BOISE?

Published: Sunday, Nov. 24 1991 12:00 a.m. MST

For more than a decade, many of the same people who want to know if it plays in Peoria have been almost as interested in whether they'll buy it in Boise.

All-American demographics and an insulated, affordable media market make Idaho's capital city a favorite of businesses testing consumer response to products from pie crust to phone systems."It works well for us. We get all the right reads there," said Randy Meisner, US WEST Communications vice president for home and personal services in Phoenix. "Right now, Boise looks like our primary test market."

And even though a national recession has taken some of the blush off the test marketing rose for now, Boise remains one of the best places anywhere to find out if new or improved is a hit or a miss.

Most trade publications and marketing services rank Boise among the nation's most often used testing areas. Since the mid-1970s, when Boise was among five small- to medium-sized cities Nielsen Marketing Research Co. used to pioneer the concept of "mini-market" testing, it has gained a reputation for mirroring consumer preferences nationwide.

"Boise is probably one of the two or three premier markets throughout the entire United States," said Bill Lewis of Lewis Marketing Services, who helped open Boise to market testing for Nielsen in 1974. "The number-one city probably is still Peoria, Illinois, but Boise is second or third."

Lewis, who still conducts market testing for national companies, said there may be five to 15 test products on Boise store shelves at any given time. US WEST alone has used Boise to test three major phone services in the past year.

Some well-known products got the green light after Boise market trials. Others have died on the vine based on problems cited by local consumers.

Pillsbury's popular All Ready Pie Crust was declared a winner after Boise shoppers ate it up, and the idea of supermarkets selling kitchen towels, oven mitts and other items previously found only in department stores gained acceptance after tests in Boise showed it would work.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lifesavers abandoned a lollypop that included a dose of cough syrup after Boise testing a few years back. Lewis said sales were terrific, but consumers expressed some concern about children associating candy with a health remedy.

Meisner said US WEST also learned from testing new custom phone services including Caller ID that customers wanted an alternative to buying a special component costing $40 or more. So the company came up with a leasing plan now used by about 60 percent of new subscribers to the services.

"We don't just look at the sales results," Meisner said. "We want to know what they like about the product, what they don't like, what we can improve, their reaction to the advertising."

Boise has what it takes to provide accurate answers to those questions at much less expense than introducing a product in a larger market, where the cost of television advertising is higher and its impact less easily determined.

With no other large city nearby, Boise viewers have virtually no exposure to TV signals other than those carried by the three local network affiliates and one major independent. Cable dilutes the market to some extent, but the city remains among a shrinking number of relatively isolated media islands.

That means if a company sees improvement in their product's local sales, it can be equated more directly to local advertising.

"It's almost an impossibility to find a clean market that you can do anything in," Lewis said. "There's too much spill-over."

The makeup of Boise's population of 125,738 also plays a big role in the city's status as a test-marketing mecca. It's a microcosm of the nation in most statistical categories.

"Boise provides a very good demographic profile of the country in terms of income distribution, age, household composition," said Earl Naumann, a marketing professor at Boise State University. "We tend to mirror the national numbers, with the exception of minorities."

The city's population of most racial and ethnic minorities is smaller than national averages. But Lewis said that's less important than other factors since most products are designed for general consumption. It only becomes significant with products targeted for specific groups.

US WEST also favors Boise for its less restrictive regulatory environment since the Idaho Legislature partially deregulated telephone service in 1989. That allows the company to install new technology with less interference than in some other states. And having the technology in place makes it easier to get new services off the ground.

Test marketing has little direct impact on Boise consumers, beyond giving them the first crack at new products. But it's a boon for local retailers who often get no-risk sales guarantees from producers and can sell "scan data," or sales records they keep anyway.

Being a prime test market also can benefit Boise TV and radio stations that sell air time to advertisers, and the local newspaper takes advantage of the city's reputation in sales to national advertisers.

Nancy McKinnon, marketing director for The Idaho Statesman, said she hasn't had to promote Boise in advertising trade publications filled with newspapers' ads with slogans like "Exceptionally Average: Syracuse" or "What Flies in Columbus Flies Everywhere."

"Our reputation says to national advertisers to not disregard Boise when they're making a media buy," McKinnon said. "It has a whole lot of benefits."

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