It is very much in the way of things that most people now working in chain drug retailing have never heard of Frank Shanower. What brings him to mind at this late date — almost 20 years after he left the drug chain he helped build into an iconic retailer — is the fact that he passed away last month in Atlanta at the age of 71, the victim of a massive heart attack.

Frank Shanower, Drug Emporium, chain drug retailing, deep-discount drug retailer, David Pinto, chain drug industry, Uncle Billís, Fisherís Big Wheel, Kroger, Peoples Drug Stores, Revco, Phil Wilbur, Vern Brunner, Doug Degn, Chris Bodine, Rich Landers, Charlie Boulus, Pat Rizzotto

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

Remembering a legendary merchant

October 11th, 2010
by David Pinto

It is very much in the way of things that most people now working in chain drug retailing have never heard of Frank Shanower. What brings him to mind at this late date — almost 20 years after he left the drug chain he helped build into an iconic retailer — is the fact that he passed away last month in Atlanta at the age of 71, the victim of a massive heart attack.

Shanower spent most of his adult life as a merchant in the mass retailing community, initially signing on at a Cleveland-based discount chain of another era called Uncle Bill’s. From there he moved to Kroger, then on to Fisher’s Big Wheel, another now-defunct discount retailer.

But those who remember him recall him most fondly and impressively for the contributions he made and the indelible impact he exerted on Drug Emporium, the legendary deep-discount drug chain that altered and defined an era in chain drug retailing. Over an extended period of time that began in the early 1980s and extended into the ’90s, Shanower was the force behind the most successful deep-discount drug retailer that the chain drug industry ever produced.

Drug Emporium was founded by Phil Wilbur, a legendary merchant in his own right who had, for a time in the 1970s, worked at the Lane Drug unit of Peoples Drug Stores. While working at Peoples, Wilbur happened across a new concept in chain drug retailing when he visited a drug store in Cleveland.

The store, owned and operated by the family of the founder of Revco D.S., was unique in that it offered its customers dramatically lower prices on a limited-assortment H&BA-based merchandise mix. The store could do so because it offered its customers items either bought on promotion or closeout products bought at reduced prices because they had undergone packaging, labeling, ingredient or size adjustments.

Enamored of the concept, Wilbur decided to open his own deep-discount drug store, in Columbus, Ohio. When it quickly became successful, he decided to franchise the concept. That’s where Shanower came in.

In 1983 Shanower bought the franchise rights for the Drug Emporium stores in Atlanta. They quickly became the company’s pacesetters in sales, because Shanower bought more wisely and merchandised and promoted more creatively than other Drug Emporium franchisees. In 1988 Wilbur lured Shanower to Drug Emporium’s Columbus headquarters by offering him the job of head merchant. He brought with him the merchandising concepts that had succeeded so dramatically in Atlanta — and Drug Emporium soon became one of the hottest properties in chain drug retailing.

But Shanower brought more than merchandising creativity and expertise to Columbus. He brought as well a unique approach, then as now, to retailer-supplier relations, one focused more on the business of retailing than simply getting the best deal from suppliers.

Indeed, for Shanower it was never about getting better terms or taking advantage of suppliers anxious to do business with Drug Emporium. Rather, for him it was all about building the business. Like a handful of exemplary merchants — Vern Brunner, Doug Degn and Chris Bodine come readily to mind — Shanower asked only one question when negotiating with suppliers: How can we grow the business together?

Not coincidentally, Shanower’s time at Drug Emporium coincided with the deep-discount retailer’s most creative and successful years. At its peak, the Columbus-based retailer operated 252 drug stores in 28 states.

Propelled by a formula that put the emphasis on price and a Shanower-trained and -led merchandising staff that understood both the lure of offering customers irresistible prices and the power inherent in meeting suppliers halfway, Drug Emporium became a drug chain of considerable power, copied by some, envied by others, and unjustly accused by still others in the chain drug community of unfair, illegal or dishonest dealings with ­suppliers.

But Shanower was more than a dynamic merchant. He was an outsized personality who never failed to make an impression, usually favorable, on the people he came to know. He thoroughly enjoyed being Frank Shanower, and those who met him quickly became his friends, eagerly anticipating their times together, and endlessly telling and retelling stories of his merchandising heroics, even those that he himself invented or ­embellished.

At bottom, however, the emotion most frequently associated with Shanower was respect. He knew only one way to approach his business — by putting customers first. The inevitable result was a relationship with suppliers in which each partner came out ahead. In the end, this approach allowed him to thoroughly enjoy who he became, what he did and all aspects of the reputation he created — the respect, the friendships, the adulation, the larger-than-life personality and the inferences, clearly at odds with the truth, that supplier negotiations weren’t always above board at Drug Emporium.

In time Drug Emporium got tangled up with all sorts of marginal issues, even going to court to protect its franchise agreements. New management that followed Wilbur only exacerbated its troubles. Eventually, it ceased to exist. As for Shanower, he left Columbus in 1991 and returned to Atlanta, where he directed and coordinated Drug Emporium’s private label program until 1995, then went off into other ventures before finally leaving the world of retailing for good in 2004.

At Shanower’s death last month, only a few industry veterans — Rich Landers, Charlie Boulus, Pat Rizzotto — remembered him and the impact he exerted on chain drug retailing in the 1980s and ’90s. Those who did, however, clearly recollected the man before recalling his ­accomplishments.

What they recalled was a legendary personality, a man who thoroughly enjoyed being who he was, someone always ready to laugh, tell a story, play a practical joke on a friend — old-timers recalled the time he “mooned” Charlie Boulus at a merchandising show when he thought, incorrectly, that no one was watching — always there with a drink and a joke, invariably infecting those around him with his joy of living. Indeed, the only thing he took really seriously — beside his wife, Joyce, and his two daughters, Lori and Lisa — was building the business.

No one did it better.