It’s time to begin talking to each other again

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No matter how you analyze it, 2020 was a depressing and deadly year. It’s not that nothing much happened. Rather, it’s the fact that what did happen was counterproductive — and then some.

As background, we faced the coronavirus, the deadliest and most destructive pandemic to entrap America and the world in who-knows-how-many decades. Added to this debacle has been the state of the economy, which, everyone who thinks about it agrees, has offered nothing to get excited about.

Atop these twin disasters has been the 2020 presidential election, which will likely be remembered least fondly for the avalanche of requests, pleas, admonitions and demands for money. Donate one day and one day later comes a note demanding to know why the donor hadn’t yet donated. Where it will end, God knows.

And where, you might well ask, has this melange left the mass retail community? In a land full of uncertainties, doubt, recriminations and questions. Questions about today. Tomorrow. Next month. Next Year.

It’s not that nothing happened in the chain drug retailing community this year. Rather, it’s that nothing much good has happened. Those stories that made the news had more to do with shortages — of goods, of shoppers, of face masks, of social distancing — than with progress, successful endeavors, new ventures or the completion of old ones. Few new markets were entered. Few mergers or acquisitions were announced. The sale of Bartell Drugs to Rite Aid was, by default, perhaps the biggest acquisition news of the year.

As for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the hub around which the chain drug industry has long radiated, it is effectively on temporary sabbatical. For good and proper reasons. Travel has been effectively curtailed. Business offices have been largely shuttered. Working from home has become the default proposition. And the result has been to wait until next year — though few people know what next year will bring.

Against that backdrop, here are some thoughts about the state of the industry’s 2020 as that most dreadful of years draws to a close.

First, all things considered, chain drug retailing is largely weathering the storm. If business has been less than normal, it has not been that much less than normal. More to the point, the chain drug store, with its long-held franchise of health and beauty care in America, has been the tonic Americans have needed during the difficult days. Most significant, the stores have been open. Of almost equal value, they have been selling the stuff that harried consumers most want, most need, most look for. If anything, the chain drug store has solidified its well-deserved reputation as America’s neighborhood general store.

Next, by choosing to act with caution during 2002, the leaders of the nation’s chain drug stores have acted wisely. Seeing little that they could productively accomplish, chain drug’s top managers chose instead to wait before acting, to wait to see what will happen next. As a result, the boldest actions they took during this year of discontent and uncertainty were to focus on their staffs, to acknowledge that their employees have largely functioned brilliantly during a time that has tried men’s souls. As a result, the chain drug community is emerging from 2020 with stronger, more dedicated, more productive and more resourceful employees than was the case when the year began. In the bargain, the industry learned a valuable lesson: Chain drug retailing succeeds because of the knowledge, dedication and productivity of the people who toil in America’s chain drug stores.

Finally, the industry has, in 2020, labored largely in a shell of its own making. Industry people, as a result, have stopped talking to each other. This lack of industry communication has the potential to hurt chain drug retailing going forward more dramatically and permanently that the residue of the unfortunate events of 2020. This industry was founded, built and strengthened on its ability to communicate. NACDS’ forced cancellation of its signature meeting in 2020 hurt the industry most not so much for the absence of content as for the absence of communication. This has got to end. And end soon. Two people speaking to each other, if only casually, produces more ideas and innovation that one person speaking only to himself ever does or ever will. So the time has come to begin talking again — to each other, to friends, to rivals, to competitors. For too long have we lived alone. Now, we must relearn how to live together.

So we’ll say a welcome good-bye to 2020, and an early hello to 2021. It can only be better than the year we just finished living through.



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