The qualities that have enabled USA Drug to thrive as a regional chain were much in evidence at the opening of a relocated store here.

USA Drug, Joe Courtright, Steve LaFrance, Pine Bluff, pharmacy, drug store, Carl Wheeler, Super D, Ike's, Geoff Walden

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USA Drug flourishes with personal touch

June 8th, 2009
USA Drug, dubbed the "hometown pharmacy," stresses customer service.

PINE BLUFF, Ark. – The qualities that have enabled USA Drug to thrive as a regional chain were much in evidence at the opening of a relocated store here.

When an elderly woman checked out an overstuffed shopping basket, for example, a cashier walked out to the parking lot to help load her car.

At the pharmacy, when the older child of a customer holding an infant began to knock items off a shelf, the pharmacy clerk held the baby so the mother could corral the wayward sibling.

At another store in Bryant, Ark., later that day, a pharmacist spoke with a couple for 10 minutes after they picked up their prescription.

The unsolicited services explain USA Drug’s reputation as the welcoming “hometown pharmacy,” says president and chief executive officer Joe Courtright. “We’ve got better prices than the competition,” he says, “but more importantly, better people.”

As chairman Steve LaFrance notes, “there’s value in a lot of things that don’t cost money.”

Among those things are LaFrance’s 40 years of residence in Pine Bluff while working for and building up the chain from one leased pharmacy to more than 160 corporate and franchised stores.

The warmth of his relationships with employees and residents was evident at the opening. LaFrance got handshakes and hugs from everyone from the mayor to his own stockers.

LaFrance’s familiarity with the town and its people translates into a customized shopping experience at USA Drug’s four Pine Bluff units. For instance, because the replacement store serves many older people, its parking spaces and driving lanes are wider than usual to ease apprehension about getting into and out of the lot.

The Little Rock-based chain’s pricing is also inviting. “We’ve always had value pricing,” Courtright says. “We haven’t had to reinvent ourselves because of the economy.”

And promotions don’t hurt. That was apparent from the appeal of 79-cent bottles of bleach at Pine Bluff stores the week of the grand opening. The relocated store sold 270 bottles in one day, so it was good that USA Drug has a distribution center in the city, Courtright notes.

Other chains have cut SKUs in switching from specialty goods to commodities. By contrast, USA Drug’s long-standing position as “America’s low-price drug store” has meant consistent merchandising, Courtright says.

The retailer is a destination for consumables and household goods. Its circulars typically feature paper towels, tissue and detergent on the front page. Says LaFrance: “We’re not selling wants; we’re selling needs.”

Despite its homespun philosophy, USA Drug is also very much of the 21st century. All new stores get drive-through pharmacies, and prescription counters in high-volume stores use ScriptPro robotics. Electronic reader boards are common outside stores, and a signature interior feature is vinyl strip flooring that gives the appearance of wood. “We’re hands-on and high-tech,” LaFrance says.

Cleanliness and a lack of out-of-stocks are other company hallmarks. “We really work hard at the ABCs of retailing,” the chairman adds.

The chain does so across a breadth of formats. Over its history it has acquired units ranging from 1,800-square-foot Super D stores to 30,000-square-foot Ike’s outlets. That’s an advantage when USA Drug buys small-town independents because it has experience merchandising varied spaces.

The company’s chain acquisitions also enhanced its knowledge of different markets when it picked up local executives. With the purchase of Memphis-based Super D, for example, it picked up experts on western Tennessee, including Carl Wheeler, now USA Drug’s vice president of purchasing.

And when it bought Tulsa-based May’s Drug Stores it gained Courtright, who was that chain’s vice president of pharmacy, and his familiarity with Oklahoma and Missouri. “We rely on each others’ market specialties,” comments Courtright.

The amalgam of talent is driving growth across USA Drug’s six-state operating area. Courtright sees expansion potential both through independent acquisitions and greenfield stores. In the company’s major markets of Little Rock, Ark., and Tulsa, Memphis and Jackson, Miss., “there are a lot of underserved areas that have been screaming for a drug store,” he says. Little Rock, he adds, “is not close to saturation.”

USA Drug’s appeal as a workplace doesn’t hurt growth, either. While the job market has tightened since the peak of the pharmacist shortage, prospective pharmacists can be selective about where they work, Courtright says. A lot of candidates want to work for a family-owned business — which he believes is one reason USA Drug attracts the cream of the crop.

“If you have the best you can distance yourself from the competition,” he says.

Front-end employees are also loyal to the company. That was evidenced by the half-dozen store managers from other outlets came to the Pine Bluff grand opening before dawn to barbecue 1,000 chickens in an industrial broiler in the parking lot for a fund-raiser for muscular dystrophy research.

USA Drug’s family ownership isn’t about to change anytime soon. LaFrance has two sons, Jason and Steve Jr., working as executive vice presidents at the company. Asked if he gets offers for the chain, LaFrance says, “It ain’t for sale. I’m having too much fun.”