For London Drugs, community has always been at the heart of its operations. It remained central during the pandemic – when few large retailers were prepared to deliver solutions for the unique challenges of the moment. The company’s brand framework – an actual document that hangs in the offices of many of the company’s top executives – calls for the company “to thrive on finding ways to take care of people, every day.”
Founded in 1945, London Drugs has brick-and-mortar stores in more than 35 major markets throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as an ecommerce presence that sells worldwide. With the pharmacy at the heart of its operations, the company also offers a wide – what they call an “eclectic” – mix of products and services. This puts them squarely in competition with some of the biggest players nationally and globally. That means the company that cannot outspend, out-stock, or out-tech the big players needs to establish an advantage somewhere to survive. London Drugs has done just that by looking no further than outside its front door.
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How London Drugs has invested in community support
In April 2020, London Drugs was feeling the pressure of the pandemic as a large company, but it also saw the devastation and struggles of small businesses in its extended community. Prior to the pandemic, London Drugs sold small local products throughout the interiors of its locations – jams, honey, the kind of things sold along roadsides or in small stores. You could walk into a store and see an eight-foot wall featuring a mix of local treasures.
“It is a cool thing,” says Rob Felix, Senior Vice President of Merchandising. “It has been great for the individual ma-and-pa operators and great for our customers who walk into the store and think, ‘Wow, these folks understand the community and they’re contributing to the community.’”
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Launching the Local Central program
With a program already in place for small local businesses, company leadership decided to open things up further and launched its Local Central program to assist any small business negatively impacted by the pandemic.
They stress that – any business.
“This was a really hard time for so many small businesses in every community. We were in a unique position to help out,” says Clint Mahlman, President and COO of London Drugs. “As a 75-year-old Canadian-owned-and-operated company, we have always supported our fellow Canadian businesses. This was a time, perhaps more than ever, to come together.”
Almost from day one, Local Central was a success. More than a thousand applications for participation flowed into the program during its run. Each one received a personal call from London Drugs to see if the company could help. It was really that simple.
Be it the candle vendor in Squamish whose sales exploded once landing her premium product in London Drugs locations. Or the maple products business in South Okanagan who could continue to support his local food bank with a percentage of sales earned from landing on London Drugs shelves in Kelowna, Westbank, Penticton and Kamloops.
London Drugs opened their stores, cleared their shelves, opened the ecommerce sites, sold these products and gave the local businesses 100 per cent of the sales to help them through the pandemic.
“You know, these aren’t necessarily the programs that ‘pay the bills,’ as they say. But these are the things that ground us and bring us into the community,” said Nick Curalli, Vice-President, Information Technology, Technology Solutions at London Drugs.
These communities support us, and we support them. There is a cohesion that comes from a common purpose. That’s something we didn’t need to wait for a pandemic to celebrate. But the fact that it existed beforehand made all the difference.
Eventually, every London Drugs location ran a version of Local Central. The program continued to grow in scope. When restaurants closed, London Drugs was not able to help them sell food but could offer space to sell novelty and promotional items. Ball caps. Coffee mugs. Shirts. Anything with the restaurant’s emblem on it, so long as it was non-perishable.
Fuelling small business success stories
London Drugs and its Local Central program have touched many businesses – some more than others – and the stories are pretty sweet.
Giving Bear Bait a sweet deal
Herman Van Reekum started Bear Bait Honey seven years ago as a hobby – inspired by his mother who had an apiary in Calgary when he was young. He set up his first apiary on an acreage in Millarville, Alberta, just south of Calgary. It was an ideal setting for bees and, as it turns out, bears. When two of his hives were thoroughly destroyed by a bear, Van Reekum protected the surviving hives behind a fence and jokingly branded his business Bear Bait.
Like so many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating to Bear Bait. In May 2020, however, Bear Bait found a lifeline as one of hundreds of vendors in the London Drugs Local Central program. He applied with an open mind and heart. After all, if a bear couldn’t deter Van Reekum, what chance did a global pandemic have?
“That was an incredible opportunity for us. We were able to sell our honey in all the Calgary area London Drug stores and our products were featured prominently on their shelves. All the staff at London Drugs have been friendly and supportive. We were featured on two Calgary TV news programs. Best of all, our honey sales improved dramatically. Thanks to the Local Central program, Bear Bait Honey has become a well-known local honey brand.”
Saving The Girl Guides’ crumbling cookie sales
And then there is the story about the cookies. In 2020, Girl Guides could not sell their cookies door to door. That was a devasting prospect for the Guides, as cookie sales help the 110-year-old organization provide programming, expand horizons for thousands of girls and assist its members in attending camps and events across the country. It was also a troubling prospect for tens of thousands of people craving chocolate mint or chocolate and vanilla sandwich cookies.
London Drugs stepped in to help after Felix and Mahlman (and their wives) saw the same news report about the organization’s struggles. While there is some playful debate over who gets credit for the idea, nobody questions what happened next: London Drugs moved quickly to solve the problem.
As with the Local Central program, London Drugs offered up physical and virtual shelf space to the Girl Guides to sell the cookies. It was not an easy shift – the Guides’ sales were traditionally door to door. But a pandemic called for new thinking, as well as some logistical support in the transition to in-store and online sales.
With the cookie boxes stored in small outlets around the province, the London Drugs distribution centre drove trucks across BC to pick up small batches of Girl Guide cookies and deliver them to store. It was a massive undertaking but well worth the effort. The Girl Guides sold more than $1 million in cookies in 2020 without knocking on a single door.
“We talk about being nimble. There were probably 50 large retailers who saw the same newscast about the Girl Guides being in trouble with their cookie sales, but nobody acted as quickly as our team,” Felix said.
To go from idea to execution, that’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. That story of the Girl Guides cookies is going to get told and retold within our organization for the next 20 years because we don’t want anybody to forget who we are and what we do for the community.
Local Central’s community support legacy
Local Central’s impact will be felt long after pandemic measures subside and even disappear.
Felix is excited to see relationships with local businesses grow. Companies initially part of the program could become regular vendors once they get on their feet, expanding beyond a handful of local stores where they are relevant and entering into all 80 London Drugs stores as a regular vendor.
Beyond that, Mahlman hopes the commitment to communities will become a differentiator for its brick-and-mortar and ecommerce operations in the minds of consumers.
“Yes, Local Central helped these local companies financially in the moment, but more importantly, I think we’re all coming to realize that some of these traditional encounters put on hold had long-term effects in our communities. That’s why you saw us reach out to the Girl Guides, or the restaurants or local entrepreneurs who would normally show up at farmers’ markets but didn’t have the ability to spin up an ecommerce site fast enough,” he says.
“I’ve seen a lot of customers talk about supporting local or supporting Canadian. That’s fantastic. I’m curious, however, if that will be a short-lived focus of customers over time or if they will continue to vote with their wallets and not just their Twitter accounts to support local businesses.”
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