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The day that mass retail came together

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Wednesday, October 7, 2020, will be remembered or fondly recalled by mass retailing aficionados as the day a microcosm of the mass retailing community assembled, virtually, to discuss the past, debate the present and predict the industry’s future.

As background, the event was conceived, assembled and choreographed by Scott Emerson, founder and CEO of the Emerson Group, one of our nation’s leading and truly innovative supplier groups. To assist him, he called on the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the Wendy Liebmann-led WSL Strategic Retail consulting group, and the staffs of Mass Market Retailers and Chain Drug Review, arguably the two most influential publications reporting on the mass retailing community. Each of these entities responded in kind.

Emerson reached out to the mass retailing community, inviting its members to observe the day’s events virtually by signing on to attend. Some 3,000 members of that community responded, tuning in on a session that began at 8:00 a.m. and concluded just before 5:00 p.m.

Participants in the day’s activities covered the spectrum from retail leaders to people of renown, with the latter group including former footballer Michael Strahan, educator Scott Galloway and NACDS president and CEO Steve Anderson, each of whom put their unique spin on the times in which we are living and their generally upbeat hopes for the future.

The true stars of the day were, however, the retail participants, who included H-E-B chief operating officer Martin Otto, Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillon, CVS president and CEO Larry Merlo, Walgreens Boots Alliance co-chief operating officer Alex Gourlay, recently retired chain drug star executive Mark Panzer, Walmart senior executive Lori Flees and CVS senior merchant George Coleman, among others too numerous to mention.

It would be easy to invoke Abraham Lincoln’s phrase that “the world will little note nor long remember” what these luminaries said on October 7. But that would be inaccurate. Taken at random, each had a lot to say. Larry Merlo, for example, noted that “there were times that we were meeting twice a day to assess what had we learned that we didn’t know about that ­morning.”

Alex Gourlay remarked that “we still think two things are important in retail. No. 1 is your physical store and, No. 2, you buy things from people you trust. We believe at Walgreens that the pharmacist is at the heart of the business, and that all pharmacies will always be trusted for that reason.”

Steve Anderson noted that the pandemic has demonstrated that the chain drug industry is nothing less than essential. “This is a time when pharmacy is going to shine,” he said.

And Wendy Liebmann concluded that “wellness is now everything. It is the underpinning of our lives.”

George Coleman, senior vice president of merchandising at CVS, stressed the need to be proactive and transparent in communication going forward, while Julie Barber, senior vice president of health and wellness merchandising at Walmart, echoed Coleman’s words about the importance of communication, adding that, going forward, suppliers need to share the retailer’s primary focus on the ­customer.

If one theme emerged from the day’s events, that theme was the importance of cooperation going forward, cooperation between retailers and suppliers and, equally significant, among retailers. Good ideas must be shared, the thinking went. When they’re not, everyone suffers.

Cogent remarks, however, were by no means limited to the retail participants. Scott Galloway, for instance, proved to be a retailer at heart by pointing out COVID’s role as a catalyst for change in the retail industry, noting that it has effectively spurred the industry to leapfrog several years into the future, particularly in terms of e-commerce growth, adding that e-commerce has seen a decade of acceleration in eight weeks. “And it doesn’t look as if we’re going back.”

To summarize, the day had something to offer for all who attended, opening up new avenues of thought and possibilities, expanding horizons, conjuring new approaches, and solidifying or dismissing old ideas. In the end, the event was further proof, if indeed further proof was needed, that mass retailing remains in October what it was in January: a healthy, vibrant essential of the American business community, one that will take the blows and return, stronger and more resilient than ever.

That’s how it has forever been in the U.S. retailing community. And that’s how it intends to stay.


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