Wendy future of retail top

Promotion gives CVS’ Bloom his due

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Earlier this month, Mike Bloom, CVS’ chief merchant, got a promotion. In addition to his merchandising duties, he now has responsibility for a variety of support functions, among them inventory management, distribution and a bunch of other jobs that combine to get merchandise into and out of the stores. In other words, Bloom has a big job supporting CVS/pharmacy’s $18 billion front-end business.

What’s most interesting about this internal recognition of Bloom’s ability and accomplishments is the fact that the assignments he has received are generally reserved for an operating executive. And Bloom is a merchant. Indeed, since 2003, he has been CVS’ senior vice president of merchandising, the person most responsible for branded and private label product selection, positioning, pricing and promotional support at the nation’s largest drug store chain.

Seldom in recent times has a merchant risen to such dizzying heights in the chain drug industry, where the traditional path to the top ranks has been through operations, via store and field management. (There have, of course, been exceptions — Vern Brunner, Jim Mastrian and Chris Bodine, among several others.)

However, there are signs that this situation may be changing. Within the last year, Bryan Pugh, who spent much of his retailing career in operating positions, has emerged as Walgreens’ key merchant. Indeed, Walgreens has a rich history of developing strong merchants, though those merchants have often been eclipsed by the chain’s operating executives — and operational emphasis.

In recent times Dave Van Howe, George Riedl and Steve Lubin have each been recognized within the industry for their strong merchandising skills, though with the retailer’s re-engineering they have seen their priorities reordered and their assignments changed.

Duane Reade, awakening from a long slumber, has unveiled an exciting new store format and some impressive new merchandising directions, these the result of the collaboration between John Lederer, the retailer’s new CEO, and Joe Magnacca, the drug chain’s talented chief merchant.

Before its sale to CVS last year, Longs Drug Stores claimed one of the chain drug industry’s top merchants, Todd Vasos, who has since joined Rick Dreiling at Dollar General. It’s no coincidence that, last month, Dollar General unveiled one of the most creatively merchandised dollar stores that trade class has seen.

Speaking of nondrug retailing segments, Wal-Mart has arguably developed more splendid merchants in the last decade than any other mass retailer. Doug Degn, a merchant whose accomplishments at Wal-Mart have never been surpassed, until recently supervised the strongest merchandising department in all of retail, one that included, at one time or another, Ronnie Hoyt, Chuck Fehlig and Joe Grady, among others. Of these, only Grady
remains — and Wal-Mart has suffered for the loss of the others.

Though talented senior-level merchants do exist in the chain drug industry, they are not all that easy to find. Drugstore.com boasts two exemplary merchants, Julie Johnston and Kathleen McNeill. There’s Bill Baxley at Kerr Drug and, if we can expand the beauty universe to include Ulta, the upscale beauty chain, Barbara Polling (now Barbara Zamudio). Doubtless there are others.

But even where strong merchants thrive, operators generally dominate — except at CVS, where merchants throughout the organization have proven themselves to be at least as critical to the drug chain’s success as its operators. One reason: Unlike many senior merchants, Mike Bloom is, like Doug Degn before him, a manager.

Whatever Bloom’s merchandising talents, accomplishments, limitations and contributions to CVS’ astonishing success, he has clearly and inarguably emerged as the strongest senior manager that the chain drug industry’s merchandising ranks have seen since … well, maybe since Eckerd’s halcyon days 30 years ago.

If you doubt that statement, you need only look at CVS’ merchandising staff. It is a staff that Bloom has developed, nurtured, adjusted, realigned and tinkered with as thoughtfully, patiently and effectively as has ever been done in the chain drug industry. As a result, the CVS merchandising staff in place today is certainly the most stable, probably the most experienced and arguably the most efficient in the chain drug business.

Indeed, study the CVS merchandising organization and it’s difficult to find a merchant who isn’t viewed within the supplier community as among the most capable and efficient in the product category for which that merchant is responsible.

That’s saying something — and if Mike Bloom had accomplished nothing else during his tenure as CVS’ chief merchant, building a merchandising staff that has become the envy of the chain drug industry would have been sufficient to justify the promotion that has put him where he is today: at the very top of the chain drug retailing tree.


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