retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

“I’ve seen the future, and its name is Walgreens.” That line, written by Matthew Yglesias in the Washington Post last Sunday, really annoyed me, but for a really selfish reason. I wish I had written it first.

I can totally second Yglesias’ sentiments. The future of retail may well be on display in select cities where Walgreens has unleashed its new flagship stores - units that demand the attention of supermarket, drug, convenience, fast food, coffee bars and even make-up stores. These new stores are that good.

It’s hard to know where to start with this: the juice bar, the manicure station or the creative positioning of the pharmacist. All three are game changing statements that could demonstrate a new level of performance for smaller format stores, inner city locations and more.

The Washington, DC, store, located in the city’s Chinatown area, makes a different and powerful statement on each of its three floors.

The street level floor focuses on food and clearly targets an area that is crawling with tourists, office workers and some decent nighttime activities and local residents. Much of this main floor is all about the typical Walgreens selection of quick grab items for a mid-week fill-in shopping trip, although the signs, lights and fixtures throughout the store look anything but typical. Rather, everything looks hip, cool and urban.

But Walgreens goes further…much, much further than its typical store. While many Walgreens now feature some grab and go foods, the flagship takes it to a new level with ample displays of sandwiches, salads and sushi among other choices. Plus there is now a stronger presence for produce, dairy, wine, beer and other beverages, including the ever-interesting Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, Icee and frozen yogurt dispensers.

Walgreens enters new turf with a coffee/juice/smoothie bar all in a really jazzy design, featuring creative menus on flat screen televisions. This being Washington, drinks carry names like Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (three completely different smoothies.) Or how about a juice named: Water-melon-gate.

Up the escalator we find a floor dedicated to cosmetics, using displays of nail polish to create eye-catching ribbons of colors. The ceiling features a rotunda-like mural of George Washington among others. One nook houses two manicure stations (women in the store told me this is perfect for workday appointments.) Most of all, the entire floor created comfort and a vibe that one young woman said is far more inviting than Sephora or other cosmetic chains.

The lowest level of the store, dedicated to health and beauty care, may have the most radical change of all despite this being the home of Walgreens’ most traditional products. The difference is in the services.

In the HBC area customers can find a health clinic with a comfortable waiting area and doctor’s hours that extend well past the usual workday—8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends. But most interesting to me was the repositioning of the pharmacist to a desk outside the pharmacy counter. As the pharmacist on duty told me, the goal is to have better trained technicians fill the prescriptions, leaving the pharmacist to consult with customers, oversee service and create an environment of health and wellness.

And the pharmacist said the next step is probably the addition of dietitians to the flagship stores to build the image and service around health and wellness.

Walgreens currently has a flagship store in New York City (in the Empire State Building of all places) and Washington. Chicago comes next. It’s impossible to believe this will stop there.

It’s worth a trip.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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