The Re-Education of Duane Reade: A Drugstore as Retail, Therapy

The nail bar. (Photo via Shao-yu Liu.)

The nail bar. (Photo via Shao-yu Liu.)

Dr. Archana Kumar, an assistant professor in the department of marketing at Montclair State University, might be described as a psychographicist. In a phone call with The Observer, she broke down this almost-subliminal messaging.

“Blue, green and violet are calming colors,” she said, explaining that to create a “calming effect,” a store like Duane Reade would have to change its color palette from “agitating” colors, like red, to warmer ones that are “associated with feelings of peacefulness and happiness.”

Is it any coincidence that Dr. Kumar’s calming colors are the exact three that Duane Reade happened to choose for its redesign? Probably not.

Other subtle changes have been effective as well. By designing and promoting the Duane Reade food-and-beverage brand DR Delish as a more expensive alternative to its other off-label brand, Cityscape, for example, CBX was able to convince customers that the store’s self-made tiers correspond to product quality. It sacrificed one label to the hordes of coupon-clippers so that DR Delish might fare better against the big-name brands.

But here’s the weird thing: sales of both DR Delish and Cityscape doubled between 2009 and 2011. People, it seemed, were ready to pledge allegiance not only to Duane Reade as a store, but to its products as well—and across all price points.

Some of Duane Reade’s newfound fans may also be attributed to the store’s vastly improved social media presence. On Ms. Gristina’s blog, she’s penned such lyrical posts about the Walgreens-owned chain that you might believe she was being paid by the company.

Duane Reade at 40 Wall Street. (Photo via Shao-yu Liu.)

Duane Reade at 40 Wall Street. (Photo via Shao-yu Liu.)

In fact, she attempted to become one of the store’s 10 “VIP NYC Bloggers”—a contest whose winners would receive $200 a month in store credit in exchange for blogging, tweeting and Facebooking their love for the store.

While some might read this contest as part of a cynical branding attempt by a faceless corporate entity, Duane Reade seems to be investing a huge amount of time and considerable effort to draw in digital consumers, most of whom are happy to receive the love and give it back.

Last year, the Duane Reade Twitter feed—which often promotes local events like readings at Housing Works—surpassed even its parent company’s by skyrocketing from 15,000 to 390,000-plus followers in seven months, making it the most popular drugstore on Twitter. (Pretty impressive when you consider that Duane Reade only has stores in the New York City area.)

 (Photo via Shao-yu Liu.)

(Photo via Shao-yu Liu.)

There have been celebrity endorsements too, like when Glee actor Cory Monteith, who is based in L.A., tweeted “Yeah, I actually started following @DuaneReade. so what? what if I need a heads up on everyday products I need.” That comment has been retweeted more than 350 times.

As silly as this all might sound, these efforts have translated into revenue: when the store put forth another Internet-based contest last year as part of its “Show Us Some Leg” campaign, sales of Duane Reade-brand hosiery jumped 40 percent.

Still, none of this Web 2.0 magic would work if people had a negative impression of the stores themselves. But the rehabilitation is working, and once again Duane Reade feels like an integral part of the city. What’s more, individual store locations have taken to embracing the character of different NYC neighborhoods.

At the Soho location (on Spring Street, another repurposed former bank), for instance, you can find obscure art and fashion magazines. The Times Square location sells a ton of “I Love New York” memorabilia. Wall Street has its shoe-shine parlor and nail salon. And in Brooklyn, as much as they fought it, hipsters have found the growler bar and walk-in beer fridge in Williamsburg a highly persuasive reason to shop at a chain.

As Ms. Williams put it, “Duane Reade provides a safeness: If you’re picking up your cancer medication while someone else is picking up tampons and there’s a guy picking up a six pack, it’s like this great big circle of life.”

And that’s something you can’t put a price on.