Oldest U.S. drug chain is nestled into Seattle

Allene Symons

SEATTLE — The 46-store Bartell Drug Co., the oldest independent drug store chain in the nation, balances the future and the past like no other drug store chain in the United States. The company has grown along with Seattle, which was founded in 1889–one year before George H. Bartell Sr., the grandfather of current president and chief executive officer George D. Bartell, opened his first store in 1890.

With such competitors as Rite Aid, Walgreens and, most recently, Longs now expanding in the Pacific Northwest, Bartell is hardly content to dwell in a time warp. In 1999, the chain opened two new locations, fine-tuned its store design and product mix, introduced a new customer service concept and updated its pharmacy system.

The chain is enjoying an ongoing five-year boom in the economy. “In 1999, business was very good, and this year so far it’s still pretty good. We keep opening stores,” George Bartell said. In the hot greater Seattle market, where Bartell operates in a 50-mile radius, the fact that four drug chains are vying for space has led to escalating real estate prices.

Yet despite the real estate squeeze, Bartell last year opened two stores and relocated two others. New stores included one in Redmond (at 17,000 square feet, one of the largest in the chain), and one near in Marysville, one hour north of Seattle.

In the first half of 2000, the company will open two stores–one in downtown Everett, Wash., and one near Redmond Town Center. This summer it will reopen a store in Maple Valley, a recently incorporated suburb of Seattle. The Maple Valley store was a pharmacy Bartell recently acquired; it will remain in operation as it undergoes remodeling. In addition, four store expansions are planned for this year.

Bartell enlarged its prototype somewhat in 1998 to provide more room for a pharmacy consulting area; expansion in cosmetics, snacks and beverages; and to make room for Bartell’s then-new nutritional products section. The attractively defined nutritionals valley was cut back slightly in 1999. Bartell vice president and merchandise manager Gordon O’Reilly said such a tightening was expected, since that category grew so quickly. Photo is another signature department for Bartell; by the end of 1999 Bartell had one-hour photo in about half its stores. Another 12 labs will be added in 2000.

Enhancing its service image further, Bartell opened its first hearing-aid center inside a high-volume store in Bellevue last June. The store-in-a-store, which has a counter and patient waiting area, offers hearing tests and sells hearing aids. The chain opened the one site during the year, and Bartell said it was too soon to project if or when more would open.

The chain’s marketing message focuses on its ability to respond to local demand. Its circulars have pointed out that Bartell has ample supplies of advertised sale items. Bartell’s television ads emphasize both local ownership and personal service. Bartell also said that the chain is looking for more differentiation in merchandise.

“Drug stores have never been limited by the word ‘drug store’ on the outside in what they stock, right or wrong, because it can make a confusing image,” Bartell said. “But there are many instances in our history of how we’ve done that. Soda fountains way back, and adding cameras. Neither seemed to fit at first.” Today, digital cameras and cell phones are two examples of how Bartell is stretching the concept of what consumers expect to find in a drug store.

The Bartell Drug Co.

Headquarters: Seattle

1999 sales: $167 million (estimated)

% change vs 1998: 12 percent

Number of units: 46

Average store size: 10,000 square feet

Pharmacy sales: $67 million (estimated)

% of sales from pharmacy: 40 percent


Last fall, Bartell Drug Co. took several steps toward building its presence on the Web. The chain began offering prescription refills online and added an option for home delivery for orders made at its Web page. Also in the fall of 1999, Bartell became one of the first retail partners in a new Seattle-based online shopping service called DailyShopper.com, which provides a search engine to help consumers find products, prices and locations for what they want to buy from brick-and-mortar retailers near where they live and work.

The chain expects to make further efforts online, in part through the addition of new technology from McKessonHBOC called “Pharmaserve for Windows.” The rollout of this new technology should be completed in all stores by mid 2000.

Since Bartell started offering online refills several months ago, it has used what Bartell calls “a cumbersome system.” When the PFW rollout is complete, e-refills will go to the right store, explained Bartell, “without us having to worry about it, and a lot of other developments will be built on this platform.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 Lebhar-Friedman, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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