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Don’t lose faith in the nonpareil of drug chains

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One drug chain, more than any other, has come through the years to represent and symbolize chain drug retailing in America — and, for that matter, in most of the rest of the world as well. That chain drug retailer has not always been the best performer, or the most exciting practitioner of the chain drug art, or even the most emulated drug chain. But year after year, decade after decade, it has been recognized as best in class, the drug chain all others aspire too, the drug chain all the others seek to emulate, to challenge, to beat.

Similarly, this drug chain invariably produced the most capable personnel, the industry leaders, the staffers that the competition sought to copy, to emulate, to outdo.

And when, at year’s end, the tally of most successful drug chains was compiled, this practitioner invariably topped the list, or, in any event, was close enough to the top to reassure even its competitors that all was right with chain drug retailing in America.

That drug chain is, of course, Walgreens. And Deerfield, Ill., Walgreens’ headquarters, was invariably the center of the chain drug universe. More than that, Walgreens came to represent chain drug retailing in America. If one or two Walgreens staffers attended an NACDS event, its success was guaranteed. If Walgreens was not represented, the inevitable questions were asked: Where was Walgreens? Why wasn’t Vern Brunner present? Where was Glenn Kraiss? Or Dan Jorndt? Or …? Maybe, just maybe, the event just wasn’t important enough to call out members of the Walgreens team.

Against that backdrop, Walgreens last week released its quarterly performance figures. The best, most accurate way to describe them was disappointing. Earnings were off … significantly. The excitement that invariably accompanies a Walgreens interim report was missing. The sense of relief that invariably reassures the industry, that announces that chain drug retailing is alive and well, and continues to breathe its robust and reassuring breath, was nowhere to be found.

The intent here is not to analyze this stumble, this momentary falter, this breaking, even temporarily, of stride. Only the people at Wilmot Road really know what’s going on inside Walgreens. And many of them are not really sure. Those who know, or think they know, are not talking — at least for publication. Those who have the answers, or think they do, are mumbling platitudes, or excuses, or explanations, or bromides, or keeping silent.

The hope here is that this break in the normal course of events is merely a momentary stumble, a gathering or regathering of momentum before the next round of record-setting numbers restores Walgreens to its accustomed place atop the chain drug industry.

After all, this is Walgreens we’re talking about, the peerless leaders of chain drug retailing in America, the company that for over 100 years has customarily led the way, challenging all others to follow, indeed daring all competitors to breathe the Walgreens air, to outdo Walgreens’ legendary reputation for innovation, for setting records, for breaking new ground and eradicating old records. Wait until the next quarter, you can hear even its detractors brag. Wait, while Walgreens regains the momentum that is the inevitable outcome when all is right with chain drug retailing in America.

And what if the next quarter doesn’t produce better numbers, sharper earnings, more acceptable performance? To those of us who have made a living from chain drug retailing since, well, since Walgreens opened its 500th drug store in downtown Chicago, and Cary Grant was kind enough to attend the opening, to contemplate such an outcome, even for a moment, is asking us to consider an eventuality none of us could even dare to consider.

So let’s take a deep breath, relax and contemplate an inevitable return to normalcy that only Walgreens at the top of its game can provide.


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