NEW YORK If any retail observer still doubted the determination of Walgreens’ top managers to shake the company to its foundation, recharge its merchandising mix and rejuvenate customer traffic and interest, the pending departure of David Van Howe should resolve any lingering doubts. Walgreens is serious about doing business in a new way.
Van Howe was one of the last of the remaining merchants whose drive and creativity guided the company’s traditional front-end strategy and product presentation. He had emerged as one of Walgreens’ top merchandising gurus by 2007, when he was promoted to VP purchasing reporting to George Riedl, formerly EVP marketing and merchandising.
Both men exemplified the talented “old guard” that drove Walgreens’ long-successful approach to merchandising and buying, and both of them — along with many of the other product category managers whose activities they oversaw — have either left the company or, in Van Howe’s case, soon will. Riedl, the architect of many of the front-store retail concepts that drove Walgreens’ customer appeal and retail image since the 1990s, is already gone after a brief stint as head of pharmacy “innovation” and purchasing. Van Howe, who helped shape those concepts and put them into practice over the past nine years, will exit at the end of the year.
In their place is a new breed of relatively youthful merchants and consumer marketing experts. Those newcomers — including Walmart and Tesco veteran Bryan Pugh as Walgreens’ personable and hard-driving top merchant, and Kim Feil, who forged a 26-year career with Sara Lee, Kimberly-Clark and market research powerhouse IRI before joining Walgreens as its first chief marketing officer — bring a set of world-class portfolios and a fresh perspective to the 7,000-store drug chain.
In an interview earlier this year, Pugh outlined the company’s revitalization strategy under the customer centric retailing initiative. The goal, he told Drug Store News, is “trying to leverage [our suppliers’] resources and expertise in understanding how the customers shop, and utilize that in the…planograms and adjacencies” at the front end. To that end, he said, “Every three-foot section is worked tediously hard to get the best possible result.”
In a separate interview, Walgreens president and CEO Greg Wasson described CCR as a process of “streamlining assortments and reworking promotions,” as well as “prioritizing categories and items within categories.”
Walgreens’ sweeping transformation process is likely to continue for some time, and the personnel shift in middle- and upper management may not be over. But Van Howe, like Riedl, can rightfully lay claim to a place of honor among the storied retailer’s distinguished alumni. Both men played a major role in the company’s remarkable success as the nation’s most profitable drug store chain, and both helped lay the groundwork for the renewal effort and merchandising overhaul now underway.