Dollars and Drugs Go Head to Head Out on the Strip

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\"RRWell, if that headline doesn’t get your attention, nothing will.

But if you’re expecting a tawdry tale of nefarious goings-on in Vegas or — for you old-timers — a steamy Mickey Spillane potboiler, I’m sorry to disappoint you. This is all about an even more rough-and-tumble field: retailing. Specifically, retailing as practiced by the dollar stores and the big national drug chains and how their duel for customer supremacy on the strip centers out on the highway is turning into one of the biggest battles in home furnishings retailing. And how in the end, it may not matter because each of the two retailing formats is slowly but surely morphing into the other and within our industry lifetimes, you may no longer be able to tell the difference between a dollar store and a drug chain.

Take that you smutty paperback readers.

Survival of the Fittest

Neither of these retailing formats is exactly new. Walgreens can trace its origins back to the turn of the century — the other one in 1901. Dollar stores, though much newer in retailing history under their current guise, really grew out of the generation of variety stores that used to be fixtures across the country.

But their convergence and evolution into remarkably similar formats is a fairly recent occurrence, driven by a relentless merger and acquisition campaign over the past two decades, which when viewed in its entirety, is really rather remarkable. And it has resulted in two players in each channel: Walgreens and CVS in drug chains and Dollar Tree and Dollar General in dollar stores.

Retail Drug M&A

Walgreens really does go back to 1901 when Charles R. Walgreen opened a 50- by 20-foot local pharmacy in Dixon, IL. The store developed quickly, expanding dramatically as the country grew after World War II. But its real explosion has only come in the past five years. In 2010, Walgreens bought Duane Reade, and a year later, drugstore.com, one of those first generation, generically named dotcoms that couldn’t miss…but didn’t live up to its potential.

In 2014 it bought – they called it a merger – the British drug chain Alliance Boots, and then last year came its takeover of Rite Aid. That has brought the store tally up to some 13,000 locations in 11 countries doing more than $100 billion in annual sales.

CVS is a more recent creation. CVS originally stood for Consumer Value Store, and opened it first store in 1963…only a year after the first Walmart, Target and Kmart units opened. (Must have been something in the retail water back then.) In 1969, it became part of Melville, a loosey-goosey retail amalgamation that at its peak also included Linens’n Things, Marshalls and Thom McAnn, among others.

In the 1990s, in a wave of anti-conglomeration on Wall Street, all brands except CVS were spun off and the drug store unit became the basis for the company. The acquisitions had already begun but they moved into high gear over the following decade: Revco, Eckerd, Osco, Longs and Target’s pharmacy business most recently in 2015. Along the way, the company was also building its pharmacy and medical services side under the Caremark name, even dropping cigarette sales in 2014 in an effort to firmly position itself as a place where shoppers could go for their health needs.

Today CVSHealth, as the company is now known, has 7,600 stores with annual sales of over $110 billion, although not all of that comes from its retail operation.

Retail Dollar Duo

Across the highway in the strip mall stand the two big dollar operations. Dollar Tree is the current leader in that slot following its long, twisted takeover of Family Dollar in 2015. Not bad for a company that started in the 1950s as a spin off from a Ben Franklin variety franchise.

But like its drug store brethren, Dollar Tree’s history is cluttered with takeovers, many with similarly confusing names like Dollar Bill’s, Dollar Express and Dollar Giant. With the Family Dollar acquisition, the company has annual sales approaching $5 billion with an astonishing 13,000 stores. And even if some of those are closing due to antitrust measures, the company is opening new locations just as quickly.

Those annual sales are comparable to those done by Dollar General, which also traces its history back to the 1950s. It fought hard to buy Family Dollar but lost that protracted battle. Nevertheless, it operates some 12,000 stores in 43 states.

And the Stores Keep On Coming

So, yes, the two drug chains are significantly larger in annual sales than the two big dollar operations, but look at those store counts. These four companies operate 45,000 stores, the majority of which are in the United States. That was 45,000 stores.

Let that sink in a bit. Walmart has 3,000 or so stores in the U.S. Kroger, the biggest supermarket chain, has about 2,600. Home Depot has about 2,200, Target about 1,800.

Walgreens, CVS, Dollar Tree and Dollar General each has about the same or more stores than those four giant national general merchandise, home improvement and grocery chains put together.

It is that scale that makes them hugely formidable competitors to these so-called larger operations. You may have to drive 10 miles to a Walmart or Target store but you might be able to see a Walgreens or Dollar General location from your front window.

But it’s not just sheer numbers…and here’s where the convergence is the real news. Go into any of these giant dollar or drug locations and you are likely to see much of the same merchandise. The dollar boys may have a little more apparel, a bit more soft home and perhaps, particularly in Dollar Tree’s namesake stores, a bigger offering of closeout goods. And the drug guys will lay on more HBA (Health & Beauty Aid) products and of course there are the pharmacies and health emphasis – particularly at CVS.

Merchandising Mixes

But any unscientific merchandising study is going to show that at least half — and maybe much more — of the goods on sale can be found at both types of stores. And this is only going to accelerate. All of these stores have dramatically increased their space for food: frozen, packaged and fresh. You can easily find closeouts, opportunity buys and other assorted gimmicks at any of these stores at any given time.

In home, both formats are big players in the small appliance business and also sell china and glass, outdoor furniture, kitchen textiles and even the occasional bed-in-a-bag. There aren’t credenzas and other big-ticket/big-space products, but IKEA has shown you can sell large items in surprisingly small packages, so don’t count them out yet.

The dollar players are not afraid to go after the core drug store business either. Fred’s, a regional dollar-oriented operation, has been introducing pharmacies into its stores — sometimes buying existing local drug specialty stores and moving their customer-base into its closest location — and has cited its pharmacy business as one of its recent strengths in its earnings reports. The line gets blurrier and blurrier.

As shoppers increasingly look for easy and convenient choices for their in-store shopping, they are more and more likely to go to one of these stores rather than head out for the serious shopping experience of a big general merchandise store or giant supermarket. That combination of broad merchandising offerings and ubiquitous real estate is a huge asset that should scare the merchandising pants off the big boys.

Bye-bye Five and Dime

And don’t forget, this isn’t the first time these stores have successfully rearranged the retail landscape. A lot of people say Walmart and the big discounters put the five-and-dime variety stores like Woolworth out of business — but they are just plain wrong. Woolworth, Kresge and the like were stores where people went into to buy specific items, not do their weekly shopping. It was the dollar stores and the big drug chains that put variety stores out of business with fresher merchandising selections, locations closer to where people were actually living and dramatic expansion drives.

Could it happen again to superstores? Probably not in the way it happened to the variety stores that disappeared off the face of the retail earth. But there are reasons Walmart and Target are opening neighborhood, in-city smaller locations, though history has shown us it’s very difficult for a retailer to reinvent itself…Kresge and Dayton Hudson not withstanding.

But there’s likely to be one more big factor that will once again change the retailing rules as they apply to all of these stores. While it used to be that retail channels of distribution were reduced to two major players and stabilized, we’ve seen that rule go out the store window when it came to certain classifications: Witness Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy and Barnes and Noble as sole survivors in their channels. So, two big dollar stores and two big drug chains may be one too many of each. And if this convergence truly plays out to its ultimate conclusion, who’s to say there may eventually only be one player left when all the retail dust settles?

Like any good potboiler, there’s usually only one man standing in the end.

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