Inside This Issue - Opinion
The most innovative retailer in America
December 17th, 2012
by David Pinto
If you’re within a thousand miles of Chicago, make the journey to the Windy City and drop in on the new, 30,000-square-foot (25,000-square-foot selling) Walgreens drug store in the city’s Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood.
The store is located at the northwest corner of North and Damon Avenues, in the Noel State Bank Building. The landmark building, once home to the Noel State Bank — it originally opened in 1919 — hasn’t been occupied since 2005. Much like the property at 40 Wall St. in New York City, it only awaited the coming of an innovative merchant with an exciting concept to raise both the building and the neighborhood to new levels of excellence.
Walgreens' store in the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago is one of 15 planned flagship locations, of which five are open or imminent.
Walgreens, possibly more than any U.S. retailer at the moment, is that merchant.
To begin at the beginning, the Flagship store in the Bucktown neighborhood hardly qualifies as a drug store. Rather, the Walgreens people more accurately call it a daily living store. That’s a valid description.
The store occupies three floors of the old bank building. The middle, or street-level, floor is actually a convenience grocery store, and it is every bit the equal in merchandise assortment, ambiance, service level and marketing excellence of any operating in America today. It seamlessly combines an assortment of fresh, frozen, refrigerated and staple groceries — assembled in large part by Jim Jensen, an innovative food merchant who recently moved to Walgreens from Tesco’s Fresh & Easy convenience store chain — with an extensive “grab and go” selection and an appealing range of such essentials as wine and cheese, supplemented by a service bar offering coffee, breakfast food, sandwiches (which may be instantly grilled if the customer wishes) and the state-of-the-art equipment to allow the customer to blend her own yogurt.
The lower floor is given over to health care, highlighted by a state-of-the-art pharmacy as its centerpiece. Of particular note is the fact that the bank’s original safe-deposit vault has been transformed into a “Vitamin Vault,” a stand-alone walk-in department that offers an extensive assortment of vitamins and supplements.
To disguise the fact that the floor is below ground level, the store’s designers have installed skylights and a variety of other lighting touches to brighten the experience by lighting the environment.
The top floor is entirely given over to the retailer’s well-recognized and highly praised beauty department, the Look Boutique. It resembles nothing so much as a mini-cosmetics shop organized around a range of brands once more comfortable in a Sephora or Ulta setting. At the Look Boutique, it’s all abut brands seldom encountered in a drug store setting.
That description barely suffices to depict the latest effort at what has arguably become America’s most innovative retailer. Indeed, it’s innovation that makes a trip to Bucktown both necessary and educational for anyone really interested in mass retailing.
Bucktown is but the latest model — at the store’s November 20 press preview the retailer’s senior managers were already talking up the new flagship in Los Angeles, scheduled to open 10 days later — in what has become a living, evolving retail laboratory. To that end, 40 Wall St. has been eclipsed by State and Randolph, which in turn has morphed into Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Bucktown, Los Angeles, and …
In all, 15 flagship stores have thus far been scheduled, with five open or imminent. The Bucktown store is the retailer’s first neighborhood flagship, a location dependent more for business on local residents than tourism or neighborhood employment.
Because the drug chain has learned so much from its previous flagship stores, Bucktown abounds in innovation. Take private label, which, until recently, meant the Walgreens label. Today, just looking at the fresh assortment, the retailer features extensive use of both the Nice and Delish brands, one the mid-level house label, the other the up-market brand.
Then there are the departments that, in a very short time, have become standard fare at these flagship locations: the sushi bar, the Upmarket Café, the Look Boutique, the targeted cheese assortment and extensive wine collection, the patient-friendly pharmacy, the Vitamin Vault, the juice bar …
To make the journey to Bucktown easier, simply catch the Blue Line at O’Hare and get off the train at Damen.
If you’d like, get in touch with Bryan Pugh, the Walgreens merchant as responsible as anyone for Bucktown and its predecessors, and he’ll gladly meet you at the store and show you around. His e-mail address is email@example.com.