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Questions abound as ’15 draws to a close

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The National Association of Chain Drug Stores held its year-end meetings in New York City early this month — and very little was as it had been a year ago. Many of the same familiar faces were on hand, and several of the same retail companies attended.

But the yearlong series of events that have transformed chain drug retailing in America — and continue to do so — was apparent. It was most evident in the absence of stability and certitude among some of the attendees, especially surrounding those individuals who currently work at Rite Aid, but engulfing other executives and other retailers as well.

cdr-filler-opinion-750Rite Aid and its staffers are in transition right now. For example, there’s John Standley, Rite Aid’s chief executive officer, an acknowledged leader and one of the architects of the remarkable transformation that drug chain has accomplished. The question surrounding Standley is both obvious and complicated: Where will he be this time next year?

Opportunities abound at Walgreens, a drug chain that is itself undergoing a vast transformation. But the question being asked is this one: Is the suddenly available Standley now a candidate to join Walgreens in a senior management role? What role? Would he be interested? Or are other opportunities more attractive to this accomplished retailer?

Other Rite Aid employees face the same situation. Will opportunities open up at Walgreens? If so, would they be meaningful enough to be of interest to people who played major roles in Rite Aid’s ­transformation?

Speaking of Walgreens, what will that drug chain look like going forward? Will the Boots emphasis, so strong at the moment, become a more critical piece of the Walgreens infrastructure? Will Walgreens develop a permanent British accent? If so, what of its current staffers? Will they become superfluous?

These unsettled questions combined to make the meetings, for some, more strenuous, more hectic, less in the ordinary scheme of things. Normally, these year-end sessions unfold in a celebratory way, as an industry gathers to congratulate itself on a successful year and plan for a new, even more successful follow-up. This year — though the rapidly evaporating 12-month period can and should be viewed as successful — the future is uncertain.

Equally uncertain is the potential makeup of that future. Since Walgreens is now to acquire Rite Aid, then no alliance is out of the question. 26.86 CVS, which passed a relatively quiet year in comparison with its major competition, was quietly accused of possessing a stand-pat attitude, though the drug chain enjoyed what was arguably its most successful year in 2015. More than act, the presence of president and CEO Larry Merlo and Helena ­Foulkes, president of CVS/pharmacy, brought to that drug chain an aura of certainty its two primary competitors appeared, for the moment, to lack.

Aside from the Big Three (soon to be Big Two), many other mass retailers were present. But many got lost in the debate and discussion about Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS. Even the meetings and social events that anchored the week became a backdrop to the speculation about the industry and its future.

Against this scenario, NACDS performed as it always does, splendidly. As time goes by, this association continues to add to its reputation as the one nearly indispensable organization in a retailing community that is becoming more diverse and unpredictable as time goes by.

Already in the works are plans for the 2016 Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., and the Total Store Expo event in Boston in late summer.

Oddly, NACDS appears largely unaffected by the current industry shake-up, though immune might be a more accurate description. The association continues to offer an irresistible mixture of leadership, strategies and meeting opportunities that combine to distance the organization from most of its competitors. Apparently this will continue as long as NACDS maintains its focus on serving the mass retailing industry, whatever form that industry assumes going ­forward.

For now, 2015 is history — and most of those who work in its confines or observe it from a distance are not unhappy to say goodbye.


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