It’s not every weekend that Kerri Gristina, a schoolteacher living in the Bronx, manages to round up her three daughters and load them into the car for a Manhattan outing. When she does, she’ll take them to a Broadway play, to a museum or just to frolic around Central Park. But no matter what else they do that day, the busy mom always manages to carve out some time for one special stop along the way.
“They have natural options, organic options,” Ms. Gristina, who writes a blog called Raising Three Savvy Ladies, told The New York Observer of her favorite place to buy beauty products in NYC. “It’s like a designer store. Maybe it costs more, but having more variety is worth it.”
No, it’s not the Laura Mercier or Bobbi Brown counter at Bergdorf’s. Ms. Gristina’s guilty primping pleasure is Duane Reade.
“I can’t always go to a Sephora with three kids,” she said, praising the chain store’s LOOK Boutiques, where quickie makeovers are provided for free by professionals. “At Duane Reade, I can still get a mom moment—a me-time moment.”
And Ms. Gristina isn’t the only one singing hymns at the altar of the mega-chain. “I have been in NYC less than a month and they recognize me when I go there. It’s like Cheers. It’s awesome,” reads one recent Yelp review. “A girl I dated once called Duane Reade her secret lover for all that he provided for her,” another enthusiast wrote about the franchise’s 42nd Street location. “At first a joke, I started to get jealous after a while.”
“They really are like a literal urban oasis,” said Mary Elizabeth Williams, a culture writer at Salon who has spent the past two years battling stage IV melanoma. “They have this neutral quality of an airport lounge,” she told The Observer. “When you’re in a real crisis moment of your life, the mundane becomes the most important.”
But Duane Reade has done more than just master the mundane. This is a drugstore whose flagships offer everything from sushi and fro-yo stations to juice bars and in-store nail and hair salons. If you need assistance, you can ask a hologram floor greeter. Or you can help yourself at the digital makeup counter, where, via a computerized snapshot of your face, you can see what new products would look like without ever having to use a tester.
The 40 Wall Street location in particular, which opened in 2011, resembles a futuristic shopping mall or an underground Japanese city more than a place to pick up prescriptions. The reaction to a chain store opening in a landmark location could have gone either way, but this ribbon-cutting proved an unmitigated success: customers loved it, the store won a prestigious design award, and the critics were raving. The New Yorker and Women’s Wear Daily both gave the store high marks, but really, the litmus test was the fact that such publications wrote about the opening of a franchise drug store in the first place.
The party thrown for the opening of the 40 Wall Street flagship—attended by bloggers, journalists (The Observer included), design students and busy attorneys alike—wasn’t just a game-changer. It was a mood-changer.
If ever there was a store in need of a makeover, it was Duane Reade. The problems the franchise faced—both before and after it was acquired by Walgreens in 2010 from Oak Hill Capital Partners—have been well documented. Former CEO Anthony Cuti and CFO William Tenant were sentenced to three years in prison for fraudulently misrepresenting the companies finances. The pharmacies were ranked dead last in customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power and Associates, and the stores frequently received low health grades. (Duane Reade was once forced to pay $200,000 out in civil court for peddling drugs and products past their expiration date.)
The blog I Hate Duane Reade, founded in 2007, served as a mouthpiece for customers and employees who had complaints about the mega-chain—and they had many. The combination of photos of the understocked, overcrowded stores and relatable tales of misery made the site a viral hit, garnering mentions in The New York Times, Gawker, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. It was the quintessence of what was wrong under the old regime.
The most damning bit of criticism came from Martha Plimpton in a 2007 New York magazine interview. Asked what she hated most about the city, she replied: “The dead-eyed pharmacy people at Duane Reade … It’s always a journey into the heart of darkness.”
The founder of IHDR (who wished to remain anonymous) told The Observer that the idea came while sitting with friends and comparing horror stories about the drugstore. “[We] realized that we all had the same issues. We wondered if everyone else felt the same way. Turns out they did.”
The Walgreens buyout had an immediate effect, curbing the criticism. IHDR published its penultimate post in February 2010. And four months after the purchase, Walgreens boasted in a quarterly meeting that sales were up, with Duane Reade contributing 2.8 percent to the total increase.
Still, altering the essence-du-Duane took more than a quick-fix change of ownership. It’s been a long road back to Gotham’s good graces for the store that boasts the most sales per square foot in the industry.
While still under the aegis of Oak Hill Capital Partners, Duane Reade began its facelift, courtesy of the strategic branding firm CBX. The mission: redesign its stores and rehabilitate its personal brand. No easy task.
Joe Bona, president of the retail division at CBX, worked closely on the in-store redesigns and in-house brands. “People need to still walk in and recognize that it’s a Duane Reade,” he said of the new and improved stores. In other words, it was all about atmosphere. Or as the franchise’s revamped slogan put it, “New York Living Made Easy.”
“One of things we know through research,” Mr. Bona said, “is that when you create a wider aisle, [customers] feel less pressured and they tend to linger a bit longer.”
And relaxation is a key theme at the new Duane Reade: a luxury that hints at the store’s new upscale aspirations. After all, as any New Yorker knows, time equals money. So if you have time to meander and browse instead of rushing to the express lane, you must have minutes—and therefore cash—to burn.
When Ms. Williams ducks into her favorite Duane Reade location, right next to Sloan-Kettering, where she receives cancer treatment, for example, she is always amazed to see how many customers just seem to be loitering. “At least 50 percent of the people are just hanging out,” she marveled.
“I guess that’s what’s in it for me too,” she added. “I need to regroup.”
Ms. Williams’s reaction to Duane Reade is no accident: through wider aisles and warmer fluorescent lighting, landscape windows and perfumeries, Duane Reade represents the latest triumph of psychographics, a research field specifically tailored to the psychological states of customers in retail environments.
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.
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.)
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.