Nothing good ever happens after you hear the words “we come in peace.” That was my first thought upon walking into a Shoppers Drug Mart recently and seeing signs cheerily announcing that I can now buy the President’s Choice Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie there. It was like that scene in Mars Attacks, the part between the Martian ambassador’s warm greeting and the peace dove getting disintegrated in mid-air with his ray gun. You just knew it was coming. Ever since Shoppers’ acquisition by Loblaws in a deal that closed just a few weeks ago, a lot of consumers have had the same feeling, I suspect. We just know there are shoes yet to drop.
The natural fear, I guess, would be that retail concentration like this might produce some anti-competitive behavior. Certainly, that concern is something the Competition Bureau focused on in laying out the conditions for the deal’s approval in March. But the agency seems to have all of this well in hand, and Galen Weston seems like a decent bloke in any case, so we won’t dwell on that here. No, the biggest concern I’d have is not that whatever we’re asking the pharmacist for will now be more expensive. It’s that our intimate chat might seem incongruous with the savoury aroma of broiler chickens.
Because, you see, Loblaws—arguably one of most skilful retailers Canada has ever produced—has announced that they think maybe the way to improve the drug store experience is by making dinner for us. “The question we’re asking ourselves,” said Weston at Loblaw’s AGM last week, “[is] can we sell more?” He thinks the answer might just be yes, if “more” means fresh foods, bananas and prepared meals. If your neighbourhood Shoppers Drug Mart, in other words, looks a little more like a Loblaws.
To be fair, the “as long as they’re in the store, why don’t we…” strategy isn’t new in retail, and Loblaws itself has used it to great—if sometimes inexplicable—effect. There isn’t much you could find in their stores that would surprise or confuse you anymore. And it’s also true that Shoppers has offered a sort of convenience store annex to its personal care raison d’être for years. But, beyond a certain point, adding more convenience starts to feel like opportunism. Maybe that’s not a problem when you’re shopping for weekly provisions, a commoditizing experience at the best of times. But it might be if you’re trying to deal with a persistent rash or your kid’s ear infection. If the person slicing up the Black Forest ham is wearing the same white coat as the one reading your prescription, the pharmacist seems just a little less special, and so does the place he or she practices in.
Blurring lines is a fact of life in retail these days, and consumers seem to tolerate it. But that might just be because selling everything everywhere makes everything look like a commodity. Consumers generally aren’t going to resist being told it doesn’t matter where they shop. But drug store margins aren’t like grocery margins, and having a headache isn’t like being in the mood for sushi. Loblaws would do well to keep certain boundaries sacred if they want this acquisition to add up to anything more than a real estate deal. If we’re not supposed to care where we get our bananas, then eventually maybe we won’t care where we get our Tylenol, either. In which case we may as well go to Canadian Tire.