"When I go to a store, I'll walk down an aisle just looking at labels," says Richard Adler Jr. But Adler isn't your typical comparison shopper. He's CEO of Chicago's Fort Dearborn Co., a leading product-label printer. His client list is a who's who of consumer brands, from Gatorade to Sherwin-Williams — more than 360,000 items in all.
Fort Dearborn's key role in the production process means Adler is often among the first to know about new launches, which can lead to sensitive situations when he's working for rival brands. "It's tricky, because we always have customers visiting. We have a policy that no samples of new product labels can be displayed internally or shown to anyone until they're on the store shelf."
So what's the future of labeling? "The dream is that everything will have an RFID [radio-frequency identification] tag, so there'll be no checkout — you'll just walk out the door, and a scanner will charge your credit card," says Adler. "Then there are smart labels, which can do more than just display the contents — they can have temperature indicators, expiration indicators."
Back in the supermarket, Adler keeps an eye on competitors. "Sometimes I'll see a new product and say, 'Wow, that's a good-looking package.' Then I try to get our marketing department to find out who's doing it and why we're not." Does he whip out a phone and issue orders in the store? "Well, I might wait until I get to the car," he says. Direct but discreet — just like a good label.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.