Priceonomics

Long before Circuit City, Best Buy, and Fry’s, electronics chain Silo stocked its shelves with every appliance and device imaginable, and prided itself on its “unbeatable” discounts.

Founded in 1946 by Sidney Cooper, the business touted its “four cornerstones” of success in advertisements: savings, service, selection, and satisfaction. Banking on these principles, Silo expanded to 42 locations, with more than $60 million in annual revenue over the next 40 years.

By the early 1980s, Silo’s slogan -- “There’s no sale like a Silo sale” -- was losing a little steam; in an effort to attract young customers, the antiquated chain began integrating slang into its advertising campaigns. In one particular instance, this came with entertaining repercussions.

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On April 30, 1982, Silo’s ad agency, Lewis Gilman & Kynett, rolled out the company’s new television spot, which emphasized the chain’s nationwide “electronics SUPERSALE.” Three items were being promoted, but for one of them -- a stereo system -- Silo and its agency thought it would be fun to list the price as “299 bananas.”

At the time, “bananas” was among the many terms -- Benjamins, Big Ones, Bones, Bread, Bucks -- used as slang for “dollars” in the U.S. Originally deriving in Australia in the early 1960s as slang for a £1 note, the word (used as slang) had snaked its way into everyday American speech by the mid-70s.

Though the majority of Silo’s viewers understood that “bananas” meant “dollars,” a few took the denomination quite literally. The following morning, 35 customers -- 32 in Seattle, and 3 in El Paso -- showed up to Silo stores with massive bags of the yellow fruit, eager to acquire their new stereos.

"Obviously people knew we weren't exchanging stereos for bananas, but they were willing to push it," Silo’s VP of advertising, Michael O'Hara, recalled. "We could have said clams or smackers or bucks. What was someone going to do, bring us 299 deer?"

Silo employees realized that customers who were waltzing in with 299 actual bananas were not playing games: they fully intended to receive their end of the deal, as advertised on television. Management only saw one solution.

"You don't spend all that money on a TV commercial only to make people mad at you," O'Hara later told the press. "It was an expensive commercial when the whole thing was said and done." 

To avoid a financial disaster, O’Hara knew he’d have to discontinue the ads immediately, but he also didn’t want all his hard work to go for naught. So, he decided to swing the company’s little misfortune into something positive, and honor the “299 bananas” deal.

The 35 customers who’d taken the ad at face value saw the fruits of their labor: a $200 speaker system was had for the cost of the bananas, roughly $35-50. Alternatively, Silo took a $10,465 hit on lost revenue -- and they were stuck with no less than 11,000 bananas. 

Silo’s Seattle manager donated his cut of the bananas (10,000) to Woodland Park Zoo, but found that the demand there was limited: the zoo only needed 1,000 of them per week for its elephants, monkeys, gorillas, and hippos, and was unable to feed them uncontrolled amounts of any particular food. The vast majority of the fruits were, in turn, passed along to local food banks.

"I looked at the commercial before it aired, and so had many people here and at our ad agency, Lewis Gilman & Kynett here in Philadelphia," O'Hara later admitted. "It didn't dawn on one person that people would bring bananas."

In the end, Silo made out just fine. Dozens of newspapers, talk shows, and radio programs jumped on the quirky story, giving the company an amount of unsolicited press worth far more than the cost of their discontinued television advertisement, or the loss they took on the 35 stereos.

Unfortunately, the chain was later buried by competing discount retailers, and suffered major losses. Despite expanding to 232 locations and raking in revenues of more than $1 billion by the end of the decade, Silo went out of business in 1995.

But for a brief moment in time, Silo embodied the core tenet of the wild world of retail: the customer is always right -- even when he shows up with a garbage bag full of bananas.

This post was written by Zachary Crockettyou can follow him on Twitter here.

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