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How Can a Drug Store Founded in 1838 Survive in The 21st.Century?

Aug 17, 2007
When my daughter and I meet for lunch in Greenwich Village, we always pass by Bigelow's Apothecary.

I asked her if she shopped there, and she remarked that their Alchemy mascara is the best ever. (I had to take her word for it.)

I spoke with Bigelow's current proprietor, Ian Ginsberg, and the Bigelow's story is both a fascinating piece of New York nostalgia, and a demonstration of the importance of change in business.

C. O. Bigelow Apothecaries has been a familiar sight in New York's Greenwich Village for over 160 years.
Founded in 1838 by Dr. Galen Hunter as the Village Apothecary Shop, it was bought and renamed in 1920 by Clarence Otis Bigelow.

The original store was located a couple doors down from the current address, but in 1902, the ambitious Bigelow built a new building for himself which has housed the pharmacy for the last hundred years.

The Sixth Avenue drugstore still looks very much the way it did in the nineteenth century, and the business philosophy - integrating innovative change with unparalleled customer service - has remained a constant as well.

Pharmacist and businessman Ian Ginsberg now heads up the landmark shop, which came to him through his father. His family first became involved in the store when his grandfather took the helm a full century after its doors first opened.

He is just as much of a mover and shaker as C.O. Bigelow, and he has helped usher the business into the 21st century.

To keep the business moving forward, he took it on the Internet. Bigelow Chemists now has two e-commerce sites, one for their well-known house brand of cosmetics and skincare products.

They are two separate companies offering two separate but related brands. Ian decided to keep the sites separate (although Alchemy Cosmetics can be purchased from the Bigelow site) because he didn't want to dilute either brand.

Being in the catalog business prepared them well for the addition of e-commerce. They had the manpower and facilities to process and package orders and manage the remote sales. Their web sales, most of which come from outside New York, have surpassed their catalog sales:

"It's like a catalog that can go into anyone's home, and we can manage the content on a daily basis. It is a great thing."

Ian saw the potential of the Internet as a business building tool and went on to create a site and online store for the shop. A sound decision, he feels, and one that no business owner today can afford not to make.

"With the cost of building web sites today falling so low, with the way you can do this really inexpensively and still retain control of your branding, you've got to be crazy not to at least have some sort of representation online."

"Who opens the Yellow Pages anymore? For the cost of a little yellow and black ad in the book, you can have ten pages online in full color, describing everything you do."

"The first question people ask you these days is `What is your email address? That means that they're checking their email every day. And if they're checking their email every day that means that they've got a browser window open every day. So think about the guy who is checking his email, has a browser open right in front of his face, but doesn't have a website for his own business. It doesn't make sense!"

Ian finds that the web site speeds every aspect of the transaction, from a customer's product selection, to the placing of the order, to the packing and delivery.

Our biggest source of referrals has come from the press. We get a substantial amount of PR, and we always include the web address or our toll-free number so we can get names that way, but most of our catalog requests come directly through the website."

These referrals allow people to seek out the website of their own volition. Because they don't buy information or harvest the email addresses of their catalog and bricks-and-mortar clients, they aren't trying to force their clientele to adopt new ways of doing things before they're ready. This is particularly important when you consider that not all of their customers are young, hip, and fashion-forward: many have been regulars since Ian's grandfather bought the store, and perhaps earlier than that!

Ian travels all over the world looking for unique health and beauty products, and imports many brands hard to find here in the states. His two wholesale companies import and distribute personal care items, and manufacture Bigelow's house brands.

"We make soaps, perfume oils, essential oils, massage oils, cosmetic bags, and many other items. And we manufacture Alchemy, our own complete line of cosmetics."

The web site, then, serves a secondary service: as much as it is a point of sale to the consumer, it is also a full-color brochure Ian can point at when other companies express an interest in carrying or distributing Alchemy or Bigelow's brand.

But despite his forward-thinking approach to business, Ian has still faced daunting times as a business owner, particularly when it looked like his business was going to rapidly become obsolete.

"The big change for us happened in the 1980s, when all the chain pharmacies started coming. We freaked out. But then we said to ourselves, we can't play that game -- We'll never win, and it is not our game.

We're a 100-year old pharmacy, and no one can take that away from us. Let's just be who we are and keep going in our own direction. You can create a company overnight, but you can't create 160 years of history overnight."

Ian no longer has any fear of competition from the big chains. If anything, he embraces them as being completely antithetical to Bigelow's. Bigelow's specialized in real customer service (a practice many chains perform with only middling success), and providing unique and hard-to-find products; they were not in the business of battling over price.

Companies that specialize in niches or in providing service can not only effectively coexist with chains, they can thrive against them.

"I can honestly look you in the face and tell you I love chains. What they do and what I do is completely different. I love to go into the big chain pharmacy near my house, because every time I go in, I have a horrible experience, and I walk out with a smile on my face knowing my business has at least another 10 years in it."

And he is right to be confident. No chain can provide the level of service that Bigelow's has done for a century and a half. As a niche store, they are not limited to the cheapest or most available brands. If anything, they strive to provide just the opposite. If their customers demand obscure items, the Bigelow's staff does their best to accommodate. There is even a sign in the window saying "If you can't find it anywhere else, call Bigelow's."

"My staff is my biggest asset. Most of them have been here forever. If someone asked me for a product that I didn't know about, I know someone else here does. A great deal of the items we carry, we carry because our customers have asked for them."

And those requests come from every corner. Greenwich Village has long been famous for its diverse and colorful population.

"My demographic is the greatest. If you go to Madison Avenue, you'll see one kind of person. But here in the Village, you see everyone: rich, poor, young, old, celebrities, tourists, and you learn a lot from all of them. We always want our customers to talk to us so that we can learn from them."

As he learns from his customers, he is also doing his best to balance tradition with the opportunities of change. Bigelow's has successfully continued doing things the way they have always done them while unobtrusively integrating innovative change.

"You can't sit still or you die. That's true in any business."
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