Inside This Issue - Opinion
Bartellís hometown focus a competitive edge
July 18th, 2011
by David Pinto
Looking for the community drug store retailer that most effectively combines the most compelling advantages of a drug chain and an independent drug store? Look no further than Seattle-based Bartell Drug.
This 58-store drug chain has, over its 121-year history, forged the kind of indestructible bond with its customers that has all but disappeared in the chain drug store community of the America of 2011.
More specifically, Bartell’s customers view and trade with the drug chain much as earlier generations of Americans viewed and traded with their local independent druggist. That’s probably why Bartell, operating in a market that is home both to Costco and supermarket retailer QFC, and includes Walgreens and Rite Aid, along with such significant food retailers as Safeway and Fred Meyer, commands some 16% of the drug store business.
There’s no single reason behind Bartell’s impressive success in Seattle. Rather, the retailer’s results can be accurately attributed to several initiatives, many of them innovative, all of them effective.
For one, Bartell has resisted the temptation to expand beyond its home city. Thus, each of the drug chain’s 58 stores is located in the Seattle metropolitan area, enabling the retailer to provide a customized marketing and advertising focus that its competitors can’t approach, while providing insights into its sprawling, diverse and sometimes difficult-to-categorize customer base that enable the drug chain to effectively position itself as Seattle’s hometown retailer.
Reinforcing that image, Bartell offers its customers all manner of local merchandise, an assortment that highlights locally produced chocolates and wine along with artifacts that represent and define the city and such varied and colorful environs as Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Park.
This hometown focus, in turn, has attracted many of Seattle’s local suppliers, anxious to partner with the retailer with which, more than any other, local residents identify.
While Bartell is not a cookie-cutter operation, its typical store runs to about 15,000 square feet of selling space, giving the retailer ample space with which to merchandise to local customers. Thus, Bartell offers its customers not only the basic pharmacy and health and beauty aids mix common to all drug store retailers, but a breadth and depth of general merchandise that recalls the chain drug store mix of an earlier era.
So it is that, in this digital age, Bartell continues to offer its customers a gondola run of conventional picture frames and other photo accessories — though the retailer prominently features a digital kiosk with all manner of camera and photo printing options.
As well, the drug chain offers one of the industry’s more extensive assortments of “As Seen on TV” items, a generous selection of housewares, hardware and basic electronics that has all but disappeared from the shelves of most U.S. drug chains and has never been the province of independents.
Reminiscent of an independent drug store, however, Bartell’s store managers have been given a degree of autonomy all too rare in today’s chain drug environment. Specifically, they can adjust prices, create their own feature displays, request permission to order products local shoppers have asked for but the retailer does not carry. Reflecting, and in some instances anticipating, the changing priorities of local consumers, Bartell managers were among the first retailers to merchandise to such seismic sociological movements as ecology, sustainability, climate change and the move to “natural” products.
Then too, each Bartell store manager has developed a personal relationship with the retailer’s five-person buying staff that is unique in chain drug store circles, a partnership that involves managers in critical buying decisions and has buyers seeking, and often acting on, manager input on the viability of new or untested products. This approach has provided Bartell with a continuous flow of compelling profit-producing items that customers consistently anticipate — and competitors can only envy.
But the area where Bartell most nearly mirrors the one-on-one approach to the customer that remains today the independent druggist’s biggest advantage is the pharmacy. While Bartell pharmacists spend much of their day dispensing prescriptions and advising patients on drug therapy management, that’s only a small part of what they do.
Inoculations for flu and other common maladies are routinely offered. Pharmacists are trained to provide cholesterol and blood pressure screenings as well as diabetes tests and advice. And some stores offer travel clinics, a service that advises customers about to travel to new, exotic or little-known destinations what inoculations they might need, what medications they might want to bring along and what local hazards they should be aware of.
In all, it’s a compelling package that provides Seattle residents with every manner of product and service they can logically expect from a community drug store — and Bartell, over its long history, has never failed to deliver.