`Simpsons' fans flock to Chicago's `Kwik-E-Mart'

Charles Leroux
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
Rishi Bahl has fun with "The Simpsons" character Police Chief Clancy Wiggums at the temporary Kiwk-E-Mart in Chicago, Illinois. (Charles Osgood/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

CHICAGO - The phone in the 7-Eleven store at 6754 W. 63rd St. rang. Franchisee Frenko Rahana, 30, answered.

"Kwik-E-Mart," he said. "Apu speaking."

This store is one of only 11 in the nation (plus one in Canada) to have been re-created, at least in part, and just for the month of July, as a "Kwik-E-Mart," the store in "The Simpsons" TV show that is a parody of - get this - a 7-Eleven.

Is this marketing genius or marketing madness?

Reality slides gracefully in and out of the store. Rahana is a real person, but not the real Kwik-E-Mart clerk, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who is a cartoon character of Indian extraction. Rahana is of Iranian ancestry, and, perhaps most exotically, a Packers fan. The jar for spare change next to the cash register is to collect for the charity "Krusty's Kids," headed by Krusty the Clown, who has a kiddie TV show within the "Simpsons" TV show.

Seen trapped inside the ice cooler is a nearly full-size image of one of the cranky, doddering old guys who live in Springfield, the geographically undefined hometown of the Simpson family and all the dysfunctional citizenry thereof.

The regular selection of doughnuts has been moved off the main aisle, that case now filled with the "sprinklicious," Pepto-pink-frosted sinkers that are the logo for the "Simpsons" movie that opens July 27 and is the reason behind the reality bending.

"It's been great," said Rahana in answer to the genius or madness question. "Customers and sales are both up about four times what they were. I'm still selling what I did before of the regular stuff, plus I have all this `Simpsons' stuff flying out the door."

It's been a challenge keeping up with the demand. Rahana was out of Frosted KrustyO's cereal ("Now with 20 percent more air") but expected a truckload that night. Another must-have item seems to be the "Radioactive Man: Special Origin Issue, No. 711" from the shop of Springfield's weird comic book dealer. Those also were temporarily out of stock but expected later in the week. (Both available, though, on eBay, with "Buy Now" prices double that of the retail price.)

"No," a middle-age man was saying over his cell phone, his eyes like those of a whipped dog. "They're out of that." Pause. "That too."

Here, the Kwik-E-Mart overlay has, ironically, taken much of the quickness out of, say, running in for an emergency six-pack of beer (Homer's beloved Duff beer is not among the promotional products). The aisles are packed with folks slowly pawing through the real cereals hoping for an overlooked KrustyO's, leisurely chuckling over the many signs sprinkled throughout (starting in the parking lot with "Five Minute Parking; Violators will be Executed") and, especially, taking pictures.

Their cameras range from disposables to cell phones to sophisticated digital SLRs such as the one Ron Jamiolkowski was aiming at the image of weird comic book man who, with Marge Simpson, flanks the doorway. "I've been a `Simpsons' fan pretty much from the beginning," Jamiolkowski, 35, said. "It's cool that this is one of the few places doing this."

One young couple went into stitches over each promotional gimmick. They giggled and snapped photos up and down every aisle, but seemed embarrassed by their exuberance when asked about it. Actually, Chris and Jennie, not giving their last names, are professionals. "We're in marketing," Chris said. Jennie said, "It's cool that a corporation can get the joke."

The concept for the promotion was hatched during 18 months of meetings between 7-Eleven marketing executives with representatives from Fox TV, 20th Century Fox Film Corp. and Gracie Films. The 7-Eleven company is paying for the promotion. If asked the cost, company representatives say, "Mr. Burns (the richest man in Springfield and Homer's boss) won't let me say."

In the industry, what is happening on West 63rd is called reverse product placement. Instead of putting real products in view in films, this puts items from a film into reality.

Rahana doesn't care what they call it. A long time fan of the show and collector of "Simpsons" memorabilia, when he heard about the Kwik-E-Marting concept, Rahana says he "begged to be part of it. I was answering the phone as Apu months before the promotion started."

His place was chosen, according to a 7-Eleven source, because of his enthusiasm, because the company liked the location and because the store is nearly new. Rahana's place has out-of-towners, even out-of-staters having their pictures taken standing next to the Homer cutout or taken with an arm around one of the employees - each employee with a "Simpsons" character name tag pinned to his or her uniform.

As customers leave, Rahana looks up and says - just like the Apu talking pens that are big sellers - "Thank you. Come again."




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