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It’s time for drug chains to get creative

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shoppers at checkout_Rite Aid 50th StreetBlack Friday is here — again. But the current promotion bears little resemblance to the event that, apparently eons ago, ushered in the Christmas selling season by offering shoppers, for a limited time on the day following Thanksgiving, holiday specials that lured customers into all manner of stores.

Black Friday today appears to linger for several days — or longer. It eats into Thanksgiving day, disrupting the daylong series of events that once began with parade watching and ended, late in the evening, with the final football game of the day. Today, stores open, close and reopen — often at odd, inconvenient hours. Special prices are sometimes more special than they once were. And the tug of the unexpected often throws the entire holiday into chaos.

cdr-filler-opinion-750None of this bodes well for the drug store community. As background, drug stores have never really been a part of the Black Friday festivities, having little holiday merchandise of a compelling nature to offer customers. Those that chose to participate did so to siphon off some of the business their larger competitors were already attracting. Now, however, with the new rules and more ambitious guidelines, drug stores will be playing from father behind this year than ever before.

What are they to do? Their options are limited. They can open earlier or remain open later on Black Friday, offering product and price inducements to ­bargain-hungry shoppers who are already in the arena. They can — and some do — throw open their doors on Thanksgiving Day, hoping for traffic and willing to alienate employees who were planning to spend the day with the family.

Or they can do nothing, recognizing that Black Friday is not, and perhaps never will be, a drug store event. Indeed, when it comes to big-ticket merchandise, drug stores are at a huge competitive disadvantage. Electronics, home goods, apparel, high-end gifts — these are the items that attract customers on Black Friday and the days that surround it. These products have never been the drug store’s strength. And the larger Black Friday becomes, the farther behind drug stores lag in their efforts to woo the holiday shopper.

Where drug stores have managed to compete, they’ve done so by carving out a niche for themselves, offering products, categories and incentives beyond the grasp of competitors. A primary example is Halloween, a holiday that has become a drug store event because drug stores have succeeded in merchandising and promoting the event on its own terms. Where drug stores excel is in offering products that other retailers shun as too small, too restrictive, too ordinary to catch the attention of larger retailers.

Perhaps Christmas is another such category. Americans have gotten sucked into the ritual of Black Friday shopping. So prevalent has become the fear of missing a bargain that they dress at 5 a.m. and descend on the stores, afraid they will fail to capitalize on the biggest bargain of the season — though what that bargain will be, and whether they really want it, are questions to be answered at another time.

Now, with the arrival of a new, improved version of Black Friday, the ritual will begin anew. It’s certainly far too late to revise or cancel plans that were made months ago. Merchandise is in the stores, awaiting customers. Employees have already been given the opportunity of working on Thanksgiving Day. Hours and days have been adjusted to accommodate expected traffic. Staffers have swapped hours and days to handle the anticipated crowds.

But what about next year? If the past is prologue, planning for next year’s Black Friday event will begin shortly after the new year, and linger far into 2016. Untold time, talent and expense will be devoted to making 2016’s Black Friday event even bigger than the current model.

But there is an alternative. That alternative is to devote the human and monetary resources into carving out a more productive event, whatever that might be. Or have America’s chain drug stores run out of ideas? Are the days of creativity and original thinking over? Is the season’s major promotional event one in which drug stores will not be capable of competing? It’s no secret that the drug store’s front-end business is eroding. What better time to revive it, or begin the process, than by creating an event designed to get the Christmas selling season off to a good start?

It’s certainly worth thinking about.


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