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CDMA still invaluable to small retailers

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This year, Chain Drug Marketing Association (CDMA) marks its 90th anniversary.

Bartell_Greenwood storeTo translate, the organization was begun in 1926. The date was three years prior to the Great Depression and 13 years before the outbreak of World War II. Flying was a sometime thing, and air travel, when it was deemed an efficient and safe alternative to travel by sea or rail, was done by propeller-driven aircraft.

New York was the largest city in the country and the hub of the business, financial and media communities. Baseball was the national pastime, with two major leagues combining to field 16 teams, most of them in different cities. The exceptions were New York (which fielded three teams), Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago (which each had two clubs, one in each league). The Western outpost was St. Louis, leaving two-thirds of the country without a major league baseball team.

The other major sports, football, basketball and ice hockey, dwelled in relative obscurity, seasonal pleasures at best. Movies had caught on, but they were still of the silent variety. Talkies were waiting, impatiently, in the wings.

cdr-filler-opinion-750But back to CDMA. If it was unknown at the time, that was probably because it was not yet known as CDMA, nor would it be for some considerable time. Rather, the organization was started as a buying group, two actually, to facilitate the task of buying for America’s drug chains. The two were named Affiliated Drug Stores and Associated Chain Drug Stores. They were headquartered in New York City, the location of their major buying shows.

But in time they also helped the chain drug store community participate in the annual housewares show held in Chicago each January. More significant, each organization maintained an ongoing correspondence with its membership, alerting members to trends, new items, buying opportunities, and advertising and promotional highlights. The members of each group shared ideas and information but, at the same time, jealously guarded their secrets from members of the other ­organization.

Over the years, each group ran through a series of leaders, not in a haphazard fashion but more often in an orderly transition, as one generation of leaders gave way to the next. Affiliated was viewed as the more dynamic and aggressive organization, but Associated attracted the larger drug chains. At one time, during the post-World War II years, most major drug chains belonged to one or the other ­organization.

With the advent of key improvements in travel and communications and more sophisticated chain drug organizational structures, Affiliated and Associated became less important. In time, steadily rising costs made these organizations harder to support and more difficult to manage. Then, too, with a steady stream of acquisitions reducing the ranks of drug chains, the two organizations became less critical. Inevitably, they merged, then left New York City for more-affordable locations — first Chicago, then Detroit, where they remain headquartered today.

Finally, they went through a series of name changes, ultimately settling on Chain Drug Marketing Association. More significant, in time they reached out to Jim Devine, a longtime chain drug industry figure, to head the association. This year, Devine will retire — though he will remain with CDMA in a consulting capacity.

That CDMA remains a viable organization is a surprise to some, a revelation to others. In many ways it has been overshadowed by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and various other trade organizations, though CDMA has remained invaluable and indispensable to smaller retailers.

But the major reason CDMA has survived is Devine. He has been committed to CDMA for longer then most industry people care to remember, attending every trade show, developing new endeavors, consistently voicing his support of the association, though appreciating its fragility in a changing marketplace. His departure will be easier to bear for two reasons: his continuing involvement in a consulting capacity and the choice of his son, John, as his ­replacement.

Nothing lasts forever, a maxim that holds especially true for the chain drug store community. But CDMA’s tenure, and Jim Devine’s extraordinary contributions, make this the perfect time to take a deep breath and extend a warm thanks to still another chain drug industry veteran who subordinated his own agenda to something larger, the viability of an organization that has proven instrumental to the survival of an important segment of the chain drug industry.


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