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A lament for the lost regional drug chains

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The feeling here, expressed by an unwavering chain drug supporter, is that our industry has lost momentum in recent times, that the emphasis on innovation that once characterized this industry and set it apart is no longer as visible or as game-changing as it once was.

Many chain drug store participants and observers will certainly disagree with that assessment. Indeed, the feeling here is by no means written in stone. But let’s take it as working hypothesis until a more viable one emerges.

Once upon a recent time, chain drug stores were mass retailing pacesetters, not only opening new stores with astonishing regularity, but improving on existing models with eye-opening precision. So it was that the newest models improved on the older ones in ways large and small. New categories were enlarged and expanded while older, less viable ones were discarded just as easily. Though the cookie-cutter approach to new stores prevailed (as it does today), the newest models might be larger or smaller than existing ones, as trends, traffic and opportunity dictated. And a new store was always an occasion, an opportunity to witness and examine the newest, the latest, the most innovative.

No longer. Innovation today has been handed over to the grocery industry. Taking this observation a step further, food retailers today are responsible for much that is new, startling and innovative in mass retailing, just as chain drug stores were as recently as a decade ago.

The fault here — if indeed this criticism is valid — does not accrue to the industry’s leadership. Today’s leaders are largely different from those of the last generation. Many are new to chain drug retailing. But this observation does not mean to imply that they are any less talented, any less innovative, any less creative. This new group of leaders shows every indication of being every bit as capable as their predecessors.

Have they then vacated their role as innovators in favor of food retailers, a trade class that until very recently followed drug store retailers’ lead?

Assuming the validity of this argument, many reasons can be given for supporting it. But, at least to this observer, one particularly comes to mind. That, of course, is the most obvious one: the disappearance of the regional drug chain.

Most industry people can clearly recall a time when every state, and virtually every U.S. community, boasted a local or regional drug chain that was more adept at serving its local clientele than its big-chain competitor. Regionals, not surprisingly, knew their markets and local customers more intimately than their large-chain competitors, and so were routinely more adept at fulfilling their needs, wants and requests.

Even now their names come trippingly to the tongue: Happy Harry’s of Wilmington, Harco of Tuscaloosa, Kinney Drug of upstate New York, Bartell of Seattle, Duane Reade of New York City, Thrift Drug of Pittsburgh, the names go on and on. Or used to.

Now, most of these names, once as well known and frequently shopped in their markets as Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid, have disappeared. With their diminishment and disappearance a way of drug store retailing life has disappeared as well. Their place, and their innovative approach to local retailing, has been replaced by the local and regional supermarket retailer, a trade subclass that has emerged to effectively challenge the grocery industry leaders, as a trade class in imminent danger of succumbing to the same inertia that is now threatening to hamstring America’s national drug chains.

Now comes the difficult question: What’s the solution? Sadly, the chain drug industry cannot resurrect the regional powerhouses of the past. Alan Levin, and those other visionaries who created and built America’s regional drug chains are no longer interested in duplicating their achievement.

So the solution must lie elsewhere. An important step will have been taken when the current pandemic, which has hamstrung us all, ends — and the innovative component of this industry returns. That will certainly happen. So, too, will the innovative abilities and talents of the men and women who currently lead and manage chain drug retailing in America. They are simply too capable, too talented — and, yes, too innovative — to have it any other way.


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