Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Detroit Pitchman Ollie Fretter

Ollie Fretter

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1923, Oliver "Ollie" Fretter moved with his parents to Royal Oak, Michigan when he was in his early teens. He graduated from Royal Oak Dondero High School in 1941. After serving in the military during World War II, Fretter borrowed $600 from an uncle to open an appliance repair shop.

By 1950, twenty-seven-year-old Ollie Fretter decided he may as well sell home appliances and consumer electronics. With the post-war G.I. Bill and Veterans' Administration funding boom, America moved from a nation of renters to a nation of home owners. Selling appliances and electronics was a forward-looking career move for Fretter. His first store opened on Telegraph Road, north of I-96 in Redford, Michigan. Within ten years, Fretter had eight Detroit area stores.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Fretter Appliance and Electronics ran print ads in all of Detroit's major newspapers. The ads ran on Mondays to advertise mid-week Wednesday sales and on Fridays to generate weekend sales. The ads featured photos of appliances with the "Lowest Prices in Town" listed beneath them. Fretter's headshot was prominently displayed near his slogan, "If I can't beat your best deal, I'll give you five pounds of coffee."

Typical Fretter Appliance Print Ad
An unidentified Fretter employee revealed to a Detroit Free Press reporter, "Fretter gave away about 200 pounds of canned coffee a month costing about $500. When coffee prices rose, Fretter ordered one-pound cans of coffee with the label Fretter's House printed on them listing the weight as five-pounds. Somehow, Fretter got away with it. The cans became gag items that most customers were good-natured about. My guess is these short-weight coffee cans would be valuable collectors' items today if any have survived.

In 1971, Ollie Fretter increased his advertising budget and shifted into television advertising. He starred in his own commercials projecting a hokey, amateurish charm 40 or 50 times a week over most small market TV stations. His ads ran in the afternoon and late nights when buying television time was cheaper than prime time.

At first, Ollie Fretter played it straight as an owner/pitchman, but to distract his potential customers from the mind-numbing repetition of his commercials, he began hamming it up with all sorts of silly promotions like dressing as various characters. Sometimes, he would appear as a Gypsy violist, a mountain man, George Washington on President's Day, Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July, Johnny Cash, or Mother Nature. He would do almost anything to sell a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a television, or a stereo system.

Ollie Fretter became Detroit's King of Local Advertising despite newspaper columnists ridiculing him in their editorials. He cried all the way to the bank. When Detroit Free Press reporter James Harper asked Fretter why he appeared in his own commercials, he replied, "People like to think they're dealing with the owner of a business. A too professional approach is not good. People like to think they're listening to somebody just like them."

In May of 1980, Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley brought a $25,000 lawsuit against Fretter Appliance and Electronics for violating the Item Pricing and Deceptive Adverstising Act. The company's media advertising and signs that hung in their chain stores proclaimed "The Lowest Prices in Town." Ollie Fretter and his lawyers failed to provide documented evidence to backup that long-held claim.

Fretter updated his company's advertising by making the products the focus. An off-screen announcer described the appliances and electronics featured that week. At the end, Fretter's image was superimposed over the products with him saying, "The competition knows me, you should too." The new approach reflected the loss of Fretter's consumer protection lawsuit and the increasing competition from Highland Appliance.

But there was also a new threat--the big box appliance stores popping up along the retail horizon. Advertising had gone from cute to cutthroat. By offering lost leaders (items retailers sold at a loss) big box stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, and Sam's Club undersold their competition. Fretter rolled the dice and took his company public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1986 to raise capital and expand into new markets to compete nationally.

Fretter's long-time competitor Highland Appliance filed for Chapter 11 bankrupcy in 1992. It owed its creditors $241 million dollars. Best Buy saw an opportunity and stepped in to fill the retail void by opening six big box stores in the Detroit area by the end of 1993.

Fretter bought up his biggest competitor Silo Electronics, but Silo hadn't posted a profit since the early 1980s. Fretter assumed Silo's debt and lack of liquid assets but expanded into more states anyway. The bottom dropped out of consumer electronics market due to stiff competition and falling stock values. Fretter spread his assets too thin and banks refused to lend him any more money. By 1995, all Silo Electronics stores closed, with all Fretter stores closing by the end of June 1996. Ollie retired after forty-six years in the retail business.

Fred Yaffe, president of the advertising agency that handled the Fretter account from1992 until 1995, noted, "It wasn't any one thing that killed Fretter's business. It was a bunch of things that all happened at once. He had serious competitors with deeper pockets, constant price wars in the appliance and electronics industries, and a lack of new products like VCRs and handheld video cameras."

Oliver "Ollie" Fretter lived out his life in Bloomfield Hills and died at Beaumont Hospice on June 29, 2014 at the age of ninty-one. He was survived by his wife of sixty-five years Elma M., his adult children Laura and Howard, and his grandchildren Alexandra, Andrew, and Catherine.

"Ollie's Ooop" Sale (1979) 

Friday, July 5, 2024

The Long-Awaited Ambassador Bridge Connects Detroit with Windsor

Ambassador Bridge Announcement--Detroit Free Press

When the automobile business took off early in the twentieth century, the need for an international bridge connecting Detroit with Windsor to expand the auto industry and increase international commerce became apparent, but securing government funding for the bridge project was a hard sell fraught with political red tape and delay. The highest-profile person supporting the bridge project was automobile magnate Henry Ford. "The only way to get things done today is by private business," Ford said.

A team of Detroit business leaders incorporated the Detroit Bridge Company and sought out a former Detroiter, successful New York City banker Joseph A. Bower. Bower sold securities to finance the project and was able to raise $23.5 million in privately financed funds, including his own investment.

The project details were presented to the Detroit Common Council and approved unanimously. But one dissenting voice vetoed the project, Mayor John W. Smith. In additional to several ambiguities in the project's prospectus, including revenue for the city of Detroit, Smith was rightly concerned that the bridge deck would only be 135' above the Detroit River.

Mayor Smith, mindful of the future, realized that 135' would limit future navigation of larger freighters. The project engineers went back to the drafting table and re-engineered the bridge to be 152' above the water.

Recognizing the long-term value of the bridge and the threat any further delays might pose to the overall project and his substantial investment, Bower assumed the $50,000 cost of a referendum in a special election supporting bridge construction. The referendum passed by an eight to one margin on June 28, 1927. The next month, McClintic-Marshall engineering firm was awarded the bridge contact which ran from August 16, 1927 until August 16, 1930.

The penalty for late completion would require the firm to pay the interest on the securities until the bridge could generate revenue. If they finished construction early, they would be entitled to half of the bridge's revenue until the official end of the original contract. The newly christened Ambassador Bridge opened six months ahead of schedule despite having to change out the original suspension cables which were found to become brittle in freezing weather. They were quickly replaced with cables spun with stronger cold-roll steel. Still, the bridge cost came in 1% under the original budget allocation.

When finished, the Ambassador Bridge was 1.5 miles long, requiring 21,000 tons of steel. The clearance from the Detroit River was 152' but the bridge's roadway never rises above a gentle 5% grade. The four-lane roadbed (two coming and two going) was 47' wide with an 8' wide pedestrian sidewalk on the west side of the bridge. The bridge was anchored on the American side on West Jefferson and 21st Street. On the Canadian side, the anchorage touched down on London St and Huron Line Road in Sandwich, Ontario.

Opening day ceremonies coincided with Armistice Day (Veteran's Day) Monday, November 11, 1929. An estimated 100,000 from both sides of the Ambassador Bridge were on hand to cheer the ceremonial opening. With much pomp and circumstance, dignitaries from both countries held cermonies on their respective sides of the bridge. At 3:15 pm, Canadian bands played patriotic selections such as "God Save the King" and "Oh Canada," while at the same time, American bands on their side played tunes like "America" and "The National Anthem."

Following the musical programs, speeches were made by dignitaries on both sides of the bridge. Then, bronze "Friendship Tablets" designed by New York sculptor Jonathan M. Swanson were unveiled on the anchorages on both sides of the bridge. The plaques celebrated more than 115 years of friendship between the United States and Canada. The ceremony ended when dignitaries met at the exact international boundry. They shook hands and cut a white, silk ribbon. Then in concord, sirens and fog horns of river craft sounded continuous acclamation while many airplanes soared and circled above the bridge.

The bridge was originally scheduled to open in 1930 which is what the plaques reflect.

In what only can be described as a loosely controlled riot, joyous crowds on both ends of the bridge swarmed the deck. When the roadbed became so crowded that people could not move, some of the braver revellers climbed the construction catwalks on each side of the bridge to the top of the piers. It took well into the night before the bridge was cleared and secured again.

Photo from Windsor Star.

Four days later, the Ambassador Bridge opened for business. The opening was signaled by the passage of two cars filled with dignitaries from each country that left simultaneously from each side of the bridge. They honked in friendship as they passed at the center of the bridge and a signal cannon boomed to officially open the bridge to the toll-paying public. Cheers and applause broke out on both ends of the bridge.

The Ambassador Bridge was now officially open. An estimated 235,000 persons crossed the bridge the first day--35,000 of them were pedestrians. Traffic was backed up almost two miles on each bridge approach with people wanting to claim bragging rights that they had crossed on the first day.

On opening day, American customs officials reported that eleven quarts of whiskey were seized in three separate incidents. Prohibition was still in effect on the American side. At 8 pm, a man carrying four quarts, and at 9:15 pm, a woman carrying six quarts were detained by customs inspectors. Both people used the same excuse, they needed the whiskey to make holiday fruit cake." Just after 11 pm, a single quart was found tucked under the back seat of a car.

It was determined by customs agents that none of the instances was a commercial violation. The smuggled Canadian liquor was confiscated and the offenders were released after paying a $5 fine for each quart.

The Ambassador Bridge had the misfortune of opening just twenty-one days before the Great Depression struck. To compound the misery of the bridge's investors, the new Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opened downtown the following year charging lower automobile tolls. One factor remained in the bridge's favor though, the Detroit Bridge Company held a monopoly as the only Michigan international crossing for the commercial truck business.

When World War II broke out just over a decade later, American gas rationing dramatically cut automobile bridge traffic, but commercial truck traffic increased due to the war effort. In 1944, two years into the United States entry into the war, the Ambassador Bridge became profitable for the first time. Investors were paid 75 cents per share which began an unbroken stream of dividends every year since.

Gordie Howe International Bridge