Regional chains, independents can play the innovation game, too

From Seattle to New York and points in between, the face of the American drug store is changing

When Seattle-based Bartell Drugs opened its 61st store in the city's rapidly growing South Lake Union neighborhood, it unveiled a store that included not only a nice new format, but also a variety of amenities rarely seen in drug stores, including cold beer on tap; such pet-friendly features as water bowls, pet-hitching posts and free dog biscuits; and a selection of local spirits.

The large-scale evolution of the American drug store has mostly happened in the big, national chains, and despite some doubts from naysayers about some of the concepts in the Walgreens flagship stores, that format has already expanded to several cities. CVS and Rite Aid have expanded their respective Urban Cluster and Wellness store formats as well, providing clear indication of their popularity with consumers.

But what Bartell's latest store shows is that innovation isn't just for the big chains — regional chains and even independents can and probably should get into the act as well. Moreover, as an article in The Detroit News last week shows, even some independents are revamping their front ends to appeal to more upscale customers. As Mills Pharmacy and Apothecary retail director Rita Sayegh was quoted as saying in the story, "It's becoming the future-store template." The store includes what Sayegh called a "gourmet convenience store."

Independents elsewhere have embraced innovation, too. In March 2012, DSN profiled Tisane Pharmacy in Manhattan's Upper East Side, whose Russian-born owners emphasize European-imported beauty products and also installed a cafe counter that serves coffee, tea, pastries and even sodas made with syrups dispensed from a rare glass apparatus imported from Russia.

This isn't just about giving stores facelifts — it also reflects important demographic trends, like the aging of the population and the migration of young people to the cities. In an interview with DSN for the August issue of the magazine, Seattle-based futurist Glen Hiemstra said that as a growing number of communities embrace walkability, the drug store will become more of a shopping destination, particularly for things like food. Meanwhile, fellow futurist Jeanine Recckio said it was important to ramp up the fun factor in beauty and personal care sections. The huge beauty section at Walgreens' new Well Experience store in New York's Empire State Building in particular has an emphasis on things like beauty services and letting customers sample products.

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