Twenty-four years ago, when Reg Hihn graduated from the University of Alberta with a pharmacy degree, good jobs for pharmacists were few and far between.
Then single and 21 years old, Hihn and fellow classmate John Styles — who both worked at Edmonton’s now-defunct All Nighters Super Drug Store — approached their former employer to open up a drugstore in Calgary.
Today, Hihn is president of Super Drug Mart — a Calgary-based 18-drugstore chain that has been ranked as the 50th largest drugstore chain in North America.
Speaking to the Calgary Food and Drug Executives Association annual general meeting last week, Hihn shared his insights on how the company has survived.
“Super Drug Mart is the hare-and-the-tortoise story. Like the tortoise, we’re moving along.”
While the competition has focused on big-box formats or taken up residency in shopping malls, Super Drug Mart has concentrated on being a neighbourhood drug store.
Three years after the first drug store appeared in Calgary’s Huntington Hills, three more stores were opened. By 1996, Super Drug Mart’s empire comprised 12 stores. Since then, six more stores have been added, but there are no immediate plans for expansion — either in Calgary or beyond the city limits.
Hihn and the other pharmacists who own the drugstore chain — Dennis Shewchuk, Bruce Crawford, Barry Creighton and Russ Kimmitt — maintain a hands-on presence on the store floor.
“Providing value with the shopping experience is the ongoing key to our success,” says Hihn.
The year 1996 was pivotal for the company, says Hihn. “By then we realized the dynamics of a drugstore. We realized that we had to re-focus on the way we were dealing with both our customers and our suppliers. We realized we had the ability to respond more quickly and effectively in the local market. Our stores were in good locations, but what could we do to improve ourselves?”
A centralized office to work on advertising and buying was established. In 1998, an extra 7,500 sq. ft. of space was taken over to house products for all stores. The company invested in JDA’s point-of-sale software, which enabled managers to monitor the effectiveness of price and promotional strategies in the stores.
With the exception of the 14th St. S.W. location, the stores average about 7,500 sq.ft. and are in the process of receiving a makeover.
Using the point-of-sale software, the company identified some of its core category areas — pharmacy, over-the-counter health and beauty aids and vitamins.
The stores endeavour to offer customers the broadest selection of brand-name items within these categories. Hihn hopes that by sharing the data gathered by the point-of-sale software, suppliers can do their jobs better.
Still, one of the hardest things about managing a drugstore is improving service. Hihn says: “One of the biggest challenges retailers are facing, because the economy has been so good, is recruiting retail staff, especially recruiting pharmacists.”
Giving back to the community is a high priority for Hihn, an Airdrie Rotarian who has been a director of the Calgary United Way and is a senator for the University of Calgary. His business outlook for the next 25 years is good, as aging baby boomers will be lining up for prescriptions.
In early 2001, Super Drug Mart will go online to enable customers to communicate with the pharmacy department and gather health information.