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What a virtual annual meeting can’t replace

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The announcement was belated, if not unexpected. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores finally made it official earlier this month: The 2021 Annual Meeting, the chain drug industry’s lynch pin, the glue that holds the industry together, the event around which chain drug retailing spins, would not take place as originally scheduled. The annual trek to The Breakers in West Palm Beach, Fla., with an occasional side trip west to Arizona or California, would not take place as originally and elaborately planned. In its place, the Annual Meeting would …

So it has been left for the moment. Apparently, there will still be an Annual Meeting at the end of April. Still to be determined, at presstime, is the form it will take.

Make no mistake: This decision will not signal the end of chain drug retailing in America. The industry is too strong, too sturdy, too vibrant for that to happen. And NACDS is too powerful, too dominant, too important to rely on one event to maintain its vitality, its force, its industry position. Chain drug retailing will survive the absence of the Annual Meeting as we in the industry have come to know and rely on it.

Still … The question on everyone’s mind, stated or silently pondered, is this: In what form will NACDS choose to replace it?

The question is easier to ask than to answer. Certain elements of the Annual Meeting are certainly replaceable. The speeches can certainly be eliminated, at least for one year. The informal meetings at the cabanas can be replaced with meetings held at other venues or virtually. We have learned to function virtually, if not necessarily to embrace that format. Indeed, we have largely learned how to function in an environment surrounded by the current pandemic, one which has altered our business, personal and social lives.

No. What industry event-goers will miss most, what is irreplaceable, what we have come to rely on most, what NACDS has never failed to provide, is the face-to-face contact, the opportunity to renew old friendships and set out to develop new ones. We will miss most the opportunity to learn anew what’s going on.

NACDS has been unique in offering that opportunity over the years and decades, in honing it, refining it and developing it to the point where it is not irreplaceable. It has become much more than meeting old friends and renewing old acquaintances. It has become the time and the place to learn anew what’s going on in our industry. To that end, “What’s new?” doesn’t really mean what’s new. It means “How’s business?” How’s that new merchant at chain X working out? Have you met him yet? Have you seen chain Y’s new format? Is it as impressive, as forward-looking, as revolutionary as we’ve been led to believe? How is the mood of the industry? Has buying slowed down or is it my imagination? Are inventories being reduced or expanded? Has the recent top-management change hurt chain Z as much as we think it has? And so on …

These are not merely idle questions, asked only to make conversation, to spend time at the pool, to enliven the reception or the dinner, to arrange the next appointment or to apologize for canceling the last one. No. This interaction is what makes chain drug retailing in America work so well, what has elevated our industry to the position of preeminence it now securely holds. It is why NACDS is so valuable, so necessary, so irreplaceable.

The people who run, manage, support and advise NACDS are not ordinary people. They recognize who they are, what they do, and what their presence and activities mean in the day-to-day scheme of events in our industry. Thus, they will certainly find a replacement tool for this one-time absence of the personal interaction that defines our industry. We will, then, arrange to meet virtually during that week in April. Or in some other way that the people who lead and staff NACDS devise.

But will it be the same? Of course not. If the NACDS way of doing or encouraging business was that easy to duplicate or replace, so too would be NACDS. And make no mistake: NACDS is not easy to replace. To the contrary, it is irreplaceable.

So as we count down the days until the end of April, we wonder, silently or loudly, what NACDS will devise to replace, for this one year, the interaction among friends that makes this industry what it has become.

And we know, as sure as we know that tomorrow will be better than today, that NACDS will not disappoint.


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