The Bartell Drug Company, the oldest drugstore chain in the United States, has thrived throughout most of its 120-year history, with the exception of several decades spanning the 1950s to the 1970s. This essay explains the circumstances that led to the pause in the company’s prosperity in the mid-twentieth century, and how it successfully addressed the issues and returned to robust and sustained growth. The essay is based on written histories of Bartell Drugs, as well as an August 2010 interview by HistoryLink.org of Val Storrs, who served in several upper-level management positions in Bartell’s operations department between 1965 and 2007.
From small beginnings in 1890 the Bartell Drug Company grew during the first half of the twentieth century into a thriving enterprise. By 1956 the company had 23 stores in the greater Seattle area, and a long history of success. But by this time Bartell’s success had plateaued. The company was slow to respond to the rapid social and economic changes that swept the country after World War II, and other factors also contributed to a slowdown in business. Between 1957 and 1961 Bartell Drugs closed nearly half of its stores.
The problem the company faced as the 1960s unfolded wasn’t so much that it was in danger of having to permanently close. Instead the problem was more anemic than catastrophic, a steady flat line of no growth that in the 1960s seemed would stretch on into the future. Bartell’s once-sterling reputation had declined, and pharmacists sought jobs elsewhere. In 1963 and 1964 the company shuffled its top management team twice and made various changes to its stores, but these efforts were not successful. But in 1965 George Bartell Jr. (1916-2009) made some key personnel changes which by 1980 would return Bartell Drugs to decades of strong and prolonged growth that would surpass even its first heyday in the 1920s and 1930s.
One of these changes included making Val Storrs (b. 1931) Operations Manager. Storrs had started as a clerk at Bartell’s “triangle store” at 4th Avenue and Pine Street in 1962. Though he had no pharmaceutical experience prior to coming to work for Bartell Drugs, he had a knack for retail and understood how to attract customers as well as how to hire quality talent to work for the company. Within six or eight months of coming to work for Bartell Drugs, Storrs was managing its Queen Anne store, and in 1965 George Bartell Jr. promoted him to Operations Manager. At the same time Bartell promoted another employee, Gordon O’Reilly, to Merchandise Manager. This would turn out to be an equally good call.
In his interview Storrs explained, “I had free rein to make changes, provided we didn’t spend money.” He worked closely with O’Reilly during this time, and said they frequently consulted each other on issues regarding their own departments. One of the first and biggest issues the two men confronted was advertising. The company was advertising, “but in the wrong way,” explained Storrs. “They were advertising to make money, and there were no bargains. They would advertise something like filler paper with a 40 percent markup when our competitors advertised it at or below cost.” Customers didn’t come in to Bartell’s when they knew they could get the same item for a lower price from a competitor. The key, explained Storrs, was to advertise discounts up front to bring customers in, because not only might they buy what they came in to buy, but they might end up buying something else on a whim if they liked it or thought they needed it.
Another of Storrs’s duties was to acquire new stores. During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, these stores were primarily acquired to transfer an existing store to a new location (with the exception of a 1966 store opening in Edmonds, Bartell’s first outside of King County). But the problem with many of these acquisitions was that the stores were smaller and dated. They needed to be brought up-to-date, but since Bartell Drugs lacked the capital to bring in outside contractors to do the job -- or even purchase store fixtures -- its management did the work themselves in what became known within the company as “self-modernization.”
Storrs explained, “After work Gordon O’Reilly and I would go down to the [company] warehouse and make fixtures for the stores. Then we would spend nights remodeling them. We did a number of stores this way, and cleaned them up as best we could.” Not only was this a cost-effective approach, but it was also a morale booster for all Bartell employees -- not just for the management team, who eventually began to see the fruits of their labor, but also for lower-level employees, who were impressed that upper management spent their nights working to improve the company’s stores. And as these stores were remodeled in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, steps were taken to update them further to where they would be more uniform with each other, with well-lit, wide aisles and low shelves, not only to enable customers to easily reach merchandise but also to let them see all over the stores."
Storrs faced an additional challenge in updating the staff of Bartell Drugs’ pharmacies, which have always been a significant part of the company’s business. By the 1960s many of Bartell’s pharmacists were older, and productivity was an issue. But even productive pharmacists, who at that time also managed Bartell’s stores, lacked the time and experience to handle the changes that needed to be made in operations and merchandising. Storrs, who handled all of the hiring at Bartell Drugs in the 10 years that he was Operations Manager, initially found it difficult to attract talent to its stores because of the decline in Bartell’s reputation. But as the company began to move forward again, he was gradually able to bring in younger, more astute pharmacists. His timing couldn’t have been better: When pharmacists began to play a more direct role in their customers' health care later in the 1970s as part of the rise in clinical pharmacy, Bartell’s had a knowledgeable, motivated staff on hand to assist.
Bartell Drugs tackled other problems during its period of self-modernization. By the late 1960s the company had found a new supplier that provided lower prices to the company for its pharmaceutical and over-the-counter items. In the 1970s Bartell’s introduced electronic order transmission in its stores, allowing store managers to take a faster and more direct role in keeping a store’s inventory updated instead of relying on a supplier’s salesman (who might not fully understand what a store needed, or who might be motivated to order superfluous supplies for his employer’s own profit) to drop by and write up a store’s orders.
Keys to Success
By the late 1970s the company was growing again, and at the end of the decade had 17 stores in operation, an increase of five from its dark days in the 1960s. But this was only the beginning. Bartell’s added another 14 stores in the 1980s and 14 more in the 1990s; during the decade of the 2000s the company opened 12 new stores. In September 2010 the Bartell Drug Company had 59 stores operating in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.
But Storrs added that staying on top of retail operations hasn’t been the only reason for the company’s success: “Good people [employees] are key. People who enjoy meeting people and giving good service. That’s one of the main things.”