The New Lawton’s Drug Store

Okay, so I’m a little obsessed with goings on in the “drug store space” here in Charlottetown (see Annals of Island Pharmacies, Annals of Island Pharmacies, Part II, etc.).

But it’s an interesting part of the economy, perhaps the retail sector that’s undergoing the most change, and the only part of the Charlottetown retail sector that’s investing money in new designs and approaches.

So I thought this would be a Big and Exciting Week, as a new Lawton’s store opened up in the space formerly occupied by Home Hardware in the Ellis Brothers Plaza in Sherwood:

Lawton's in Sherwood, PEI

This store takes the place of the small and somewhat decrepit Pharmasave that flipped to Lawton’s earlier in the year and that was located in a small corner opposite the new location. The new location is obviously a reaction to the new Shoppers Drug Mart store design, the local example of which is the University Ave. store that opened last year.

In other words: bolder design, more space, wider aisles, big cosmetics section, and about a quarter of the space devoted to food products.

Unfortunately, Lawton’s new store is a pale imitation of Shoppers. They certainly have the “bolder” down pat, with a new orange colour scheme right out of the Home Depot playbook. And they’ve got the space, aisles, cosmetics and food.

But the key to the Shoppers Drug Mart formula for me has always been in their product mix: they’ve always owned product categories that they alone bring to a market, especially out here on the edges.

Of course Shoppers has me wrapped around their finger on the iced tea front, but there’s more to it than that.

High-quality chocolate, for example. Back in the 1980s, for example, if you had a hankering for anything more than a Kit Kat in Peterborough, Shoppers was the place to go. And these days, the University Ave. location has a selection of Lindt and Cote d’Or product that rivals what we found at the local grocery in France.

Same thing goes for mixed nuts. And film. And batteries. And trashy magazines.

None of these are staples, and none of them are, alone, enough to differentiate the chain from other drug stores. But put together they effectively telegraph “there’s more here than just a drug store.”

The only “innovation” I could see in the new Lawton’s was a new section call “Nutritional Snacks.” When I couldn’t actually find any nutritional-looking snacks, I asked a of the staff to point me the way, and we ended up in a small section that contained granola bars and tuna-on-crackers. I was not impressed.

What Shoppers lacks in humanity — and they’ve got almost no humanity — they’ve always more than made up for in what you might call “the Target approach:” the “slightly upscale from the pack” approach that Target has taken in the U.S. to differentiate itself from Wal-mart, K-Mart et al.

While the old Pharmasave store might have been small and somewhat decrepit, it did have a sort of shabby warmth and charm, and the kind friendly long-time staff that Shoppers lacks.

Unfortunately, in trying to go head-on with Shoppers, the new Lawton’s comes up short on almost every measure, and they’ve cast off the shabby charm to boot. What we’re left with is a cavernous orange warehouse that lacks any sort of personality, and provides no compelling reason for not simply driving the extra 5 minutes over the Shoppers.

Ray Brow took exactly the opposite tack when he opened the Friendly Pharmacy a few years ago. There’s nothing bold and orange about the Friendly, but they’ve put all their eggs in the customer service basket, knowing that’s something that Shoppers is simply incapable of competing with them on. You might not find 85% cacao Lindt at Friendly Pharmacy, but I’ll bet if you phoned the pharmacist at 3:00 a.m. and asked them to meet you at the store so you could get some cough syrup, they’d beat you there, and have a smile on their face to boot.

Similarly, when Ray Murphy expanded the Parkdale Pharmacy earlier in the year, he didn’t turn it into the Starship Enterprise. It’s the same old Murphy Pharmacy, just refreshed a bit. Take their always solid customer service, add in the “most generous man on PEI” reputation that Ray himself has in some circles, and mix with an expanding medical centre surrounding the pharmacy, and you get another (sustainable, I would argue) approach still.

It’s possible that there’s more to come at Lawton’s, and I’m not completely giving up on them. But out of the gate they’re just a boring soulless Shoppers copycat; I just don’t see the “value proposition.”

Okay, now I’ve written almost 1,000 words on the local pharmacy marketplace. I am weird.


Kevin O'Brien's picture
Kevin O'Brien on February 15, 2006 - 19:38 Permalink

On a related but different vector: A few years back (perhaps as many as 20) I remember hearing a business news item wherein they said that Shopper’s Drug Mart had set a new world record for sales volume per square foot of retail space.

Some will recall the old Lord’s Pharmacy which used to occupy two floors (perhaps three) of the Sam the Record Man building on the corner of Kent and University (Sam’s hasn’t been there for years but neither has anything else).

Anyway, it’s interesting that Shopper’s achieved their global dominance (if that’s what it was) by having a very broad base of items; tobacco, toys, sundry clothing, cards, gifts, and of course drugs. That’s how Lord’s did it and it was my favourite place to go on the way to the Confed Ctr library (which I did for each of my 200+ skipped days in Jr High).

Anyway, Lawton’s, Shopper’s, and the rest all use the same model that Lord’s was using 34 years ago. I think, but I’m not sure, Lord’s was just a one-off store. I always thought that my old friend Ross Lord (from my CHTN days) was of that family. I never asked.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous on February 16, 2006 - 16:46 Permalink

He wasn’t.

Danielle's picture
Danielle on February 19, 2006 - 08:18 Permalink

You know, funny you should be dissecting the finer points of Island drugstore culture, because that is something I notice too. In Summerside when they moved the Shoppers Drug Mart from the County Fair Mall to its modern new digs across the street, and replaced the empty space with Lawtons, I just knew I would never be shopping there. Since PEI is so small and relatively ‘cut off’ from larger urban areas, it is vitally important for businesses to make the effort to bring in unusual/ sought after brands, to differentiate themselves from the competition. Or else offer great customer service, as you mention. It’s so easy to do today with the web and all, I don’t know why more businesses do not solicit input from the people who frequent them and find out what makes a client come in, and then return, and vice versa — it’s an easy way to get valuable insight from those they are hoping to reach out to.