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Bob Kwait: The once and future merchant

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Rite Aid’s “store of the future” beauty section

To once again paraphrase that age-old maxim from a time-honored religious treatise: To those who know Bob Kwait, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, no explanation is possible.

Through a retailing career marked by innovation, creative thinking and, at times, controversy, Kwait stamped the chain drug community with a brand of thinking very much his own, while charting a path which, sometimes controversial at first, ultimately became a path others followed — usually to their advantage.

Most recently, Kwait has been advancing the proposition that while the current pandemic has altered over-the-counter chain drug store planograms for the better, the same advances have been less evident in the important beauty care category.

“I would like to compliment the changes in O-T-C drug planograms,” Kwait said recently. “The adjustment of the categories to identify them by health condition rather than by generic topics has made it easier for the consumer to shop and to become more aware of their health care needs.”

The once and future chain drug store merchant went on to cite such labels as “sleep” and “brain health,” simplifying the shopping experience by identifying specific needs. Rather than generic terms like “pain relief,” we now have “back pain” sections specifically devoted to back pain.

Never one to leave well enough alone, however, Kwait bemoaned the fact that the same innovation has not spread to beauty care. “Historically,” he noted, “beauty has been a challenging area for a variety of reasons — among them the fact that manufacturers have been very restrictive on who they sold their brands to, to the point where mass retailers did not always have access to upscale lines.”

Now, however, the beauty business is exploding, according to Kwait. What’s lacking, however, in both cosmetics and skin care is mass retailer aggressiveness in explaining the benefits of such categories as nail, lip and eye products. “These products have specific claims that need to be explained to the consumer,” said Kwait, “and I believe this level of explanation is lacking at the moment.”

Kwait also believes that the label “skin care” has become outdated, just as “pain relief” is outmoded. “There are products in the skin care section today that are designed for older consumers and offer opportunities to help consumers maintain their look and presence as they age,” he insisted. “These consumers want to be active and appear younger even as they age. But we in the chain drug community have not addressed these issues at store level to the degree that we have O-T-C products.”

As is often the case with a Kwait-style prognosis, it is difficult to refute, more difficult still to dismiss. When he points out that products like anti-wrinkle creams and under-eye items tend to be dismissed by chain drug retailers, those points become, in a sense, retail dogma. Kwait’s point here is simple but irrefutable: “Products such as these need to be addressed on a specific-condition level and not in generic terms. With this opportunity also comes the ability to offer consumers products they may not know are available today.”

Finally, Kwait added the icing: “I also believe there is an opportunity in beauty to return to a service cosmetician to help identify the needs of the consumer and help explain the usages of various products. I would like,” he concluded, “to see a serviced cosmetics department as part of the new health care store of the future — because it fits the needs of the consumer and offers a huge opportunity for additional sales and profits.”

In a nutshell, this is Bob Kwait. While other merchants are wrestling with yesterday, he is busy tackling tomorrow. And whatever response his ideas may solicit, they refuse, as does their author, to be ignored.


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