As the least-revered year 2020 winds down, several questions emerge regarding the future of chain drug retailing in America. It’s not that the industry is shaky or uncertain going forward; rather it’s that America’s chain drug industry has changed — perhaps permanently. A scenario that was unimaginable a year ago now presents itself as a very real possibility — or group of possibilities.
Against that backdrop, here are three questions that come immediately to mind, questions whose answers will help determine the fate of an industry that has never before been forced to confront a future so crammed with questions awaiting answers.
• What is Walgreens’ future under the leadership of John Standley? At the outset, this much is certain: The choice of Standley to lead Walgreens into the next chapter in its legendary history is an inspired one. Not for the obvious reasons. Standley is hardly a Sam Skaggs or a Sam Walton, a Stefano Pessina or a Tom Ryan. His retailing career has been punctuated, as have so many before him, by a share of obstacles. However, having said that, it is also true that Standley is an intelligent, perspicacious executive who has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to lead, to make sometimes controversial decisions and to stand by those decisions when other, perhaps less enlightened retail leaders would have abandoned or revised them. So the question is not so much whether Standley can do the job laid out for him as it is a question of timing: How long will it take Walgreens’ new president to deliver — and will he be granted the time that he needs?
Compounding this question is the impending change in role for Stefano Pessina, a retailing legend who needs no qualifying adjectives to modify his well-earned reputation. The question here is whether he can be replaced with no noticeable loss of momentum. Time and John Standley will provide the answers in short order.
• How much time will be required for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, backbone of the chain drug industry, to regain the stature and momentum it had until recently displayed? The 2020 calendar of meetings, conventions and conferences is gone forever. But the opportunity to revive them in 2021 is very much alive. The question that emerges, that begs to be answered, is this one: Can this legendary chain drug association regain its footing and come running, full speed, into 2021? And, equally significant, can it do so with its present staff, structure and agenda? That’s not a difficult question to answer. Rather, at this point in time, it is an impossible question to answer. Stay tuned.
• Where has the chain drug store customer gone? And can she be persuaded to return? Make no mistake: The customer who shops the chain drug store today is markedly different from the one who patrolled the industry’s aisles 10 months ago. She (or he) thinks differently, approaches the shopping experience differently, views the chain drug store differently. The question: Can she (or he) be enticed or bribed or convinced to be loyal and dedicated to the chain drug store the way she once was? Again, it is a question with no easy answers. The problem is that it may well be a question without answers.
But this much is certain: Chain drug retailing has changed, most likely not for the better. Once upon a time, it functioned as what it was: one of the powerful retail engines driving the U.S. economy. What so many in our industry long to know is this: Can it regain that position, that charisma, that certainty, that prominence that had, until recently, made it so indispensable?
By Labor Day of 2021, we will, hopefully but not for certain, know the answer.