Where to begin with Wall Drug? It’s a destination that defies description but I’ll try. Wall Drug is a drugstore in the town of Wall on the edge of Badlands National Park in South Dakota. When I say drugstore, you probably imagine a quaint dispensary in a small town. In your mind’s eye, it may have a soda fountain and perhaps some souvenirs. All of these things are correct but Wall Drug is so much more.
Stop At Wall Drug
You’ll learn of Wall Drug well before you get to it. Why? Because one of the things that defines Wall Drug is its use of billboards announcing it as a must see destination. It’s never too soon or too obscure for Wall Drug to advertise. We were hundreds of miles away, two states over in Colorado when a sign appeared in the apparent middle of nowhere reminding us to ‘Stop at Wall Drug’. There are signs dotted all over the country and even farther afield in locations such as Antarctica. Many provide a distance countdown with only 200, 100, 50 or 10 miles to go. It’s estimated that they spend nearly half a million dollars on billboards annually.
You’ll see Wall Drug signs regularly on the drive towards it and as you get closer the frequency and variety of signs increases exponentially. The claims of what’s on offer are wondrous and I can imagine the kids in the back of the car, at fever pitch, desperately nagging their parents to stop at this magical destination.
The Masters of Marketing
Wall Drug knows a thing or two about marketing. Not only are their sign painters in constant work but their whole business has been built upon one solitary offer – free ice water. Wall Drug made its name and fortune in the 1930’s by offering free ice water to travellers. In the hot and dusty Depression years, this was quite a phenomenon.
They worked out that by offering something for free, people would go out of their way to visit. Free ice water turned into water and 5c coffee. Then the pies, the candy store, the dining room, the souvenirs and before you know it, you’ve co-opted the Jackalope as a mascot with an extensive line of its own merchandise, you have a dinosaur in your backyard and you’ve taken over an entire city block. These days, Wall Drug is a destination in its own right. A pastiche of old fashioned Wild West emporium and theme park, it still has a compounding chemist where you can seek advice from the pharmacist, get your prescription filled under the watchful gaze of a black bear and buy a pair of armadillo cowboys boots whilst you’re waiting.
There’s not much around Badlands NP which is another reason Wall Drug does so well. It’s the perfect launch pad or pitstop. Over 2 million visitors pass through its doors each year and it’s a scheduled stop on many coach tours of the area. It’s an absolute tourist trap but you can’t help but admire the tenacity of a small business stuck in the middle of nowhere being able to turn itself into a mandatory stop for everyone. Yatala Pies has much to learn.
Whatever you buy (and even if you don’t) you’re welcome to wander around to your heart’s content, enjoy a glass of free iced water and take a free bumper sticker so you can spread the word to the four points of the compass that Wall Drug is open for business.