A couple of seismic stories rock mass retailing

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Two stunning news stories, breaking simultaneously, woke up the sometimes comatose world of mass retailing as spring 2022 slipped, almost without notice, into summer.

First of the two was the once unthinkable: Revlon, once the doyenne of the mass market cosmetics business, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. To those in the know, both inside the mass retailing arena and out, the breaking story was no surprise. Revlon, after all, hasn’t been the Revlon we once knew for a very long time. Long gone were the days when the cosmetics icon could, literally, ensure the short-term success of a drug chain by merely allowing that chain to market and merchandise its cosmetics offerings.

No more surprising was the reason behind the company’s long-term decline from an industry position it once commanded from a lofty perch: poor management. Long gone were the days when the people running Revlon were as famous as the company itself, people who invented and reinvented all that was sacred about color cosmetics, people whose departure proved them to be ­irreplaceable.

The new chapter in this very sad story is yet to be written. But the ultimate losers will not be the millions of women who long supported the brand. Nor will the company itself be the ultimate loser; brands, even the special ones, come and go. No. The losers will be the mass retailers who created and supported Revlon’s success — and who will be poorer for its failure.

The second story, which surrounded the July 4th holiday, hit closer to home. It was the stunning announcement that CVS Health was withdrawing from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

Here, again, this breaking news event was merely the first paragraph of the first chapter of what will emerge as a long and very sad story. The combination of CVS and NACDS was, in its day, a marriage made in heaven. Each was a stronger, more relevant organization because of its association with the other. NACDS, despite its roster of AAA retail members, viewed CVS as a very special part of the organization. The drug chain’s presence at an event made that event more special. The retailer’s absence from an event made that event less important.

More to the point, CVS’ presence and input contributed mightily to NACDS’ emergence, over the past decades, as the one indispensable retail trade organization. And the routine participation of its senior managers in NACDS affairs solidified the organization’s position at the pinnacle of retail trade associations.

The converse — what NACDS has meant to CVS over the years — is more difficult to analyze and explain. Indeed, even many in positions of leadership at CVS today would be hard put to explain what membership in the association has meant to them. Perhaps more to the point, many of CVS’ current leaders have never been to an NACDS event.

Yet it is clear that these very same people saw no further benefits in participating in NACDS. Many theories have already been advanced for this decision. Unfortunately, none of them adequately explain this far-from-hasty decision.

Though it’s far too early to put this shattering event into anything approaching an intelligent perspective, this much, even at this early date, is clear: Both organizations are losers here. Will the National Association of Chain Drug Stores miss all that CVS has offered over the last 20 years? More than can as yet be imagined.

Will CVS miss all that NACDS has meant to this drug chain, done for the drug chain and done to improve the drug chain over that same 20-year period? Even CVS can’t as yet conjure the answer — though its first signs won’t be long in coming.

And that, in the end, is the saddest chapter of all in this very, very sad story.


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