Thursday, September 29, 2005

Reade-ing the minds of New Yorkers

While in New York a couple of week-ends back, I walked enough to worry about getting a foot blister. I had neglected to wear socks and the shoes were getting awfully comfortable in their up and down rubbing motion against my heel.

Not to worry! I said. I’ll just step into the next Duane Reade and pick up bandaids and socks. While there, let’s throw in some chewing gum and water.

It took one more block to come across a Duane Reade drugstore. Inside, it took a little longer to find what I was looking for. On the corner of 35th and fifth, it was one of their two-floor set-ups where nothing seemed logically placed and finding things required either rambling around some, or asking a clerk for directions. Luckily there were plenty of Duanies to ask and so I was soon on my way.

I write all this because this morning I was reading an article that demonstrated to me that I was just a peg and a pawn in the Duane Reade master plan, a typical sucker who was breathing life into a growing monster of a chain.

Because Duane Reade has really taken over the city. There are far far more DRs than there are Starbucks coffee shops or Food Emporium outlets. So how is it that this ugly little store with scrawny interiors, somewhat overpriced items and bizarre layouts has eeked its way into every handful of blocks of Manhattan?

I don’t usually paste article paragraphs into Ocean, but I cannot resist it this time because the piece (found here) says as much about New Yorkers as it does about Duane Reade’s executive officers who have simply figured out what the average urban type is looking for on her or his daily run through the city (as contrasted with the suburbanite):

Duane Reade ought not to be successful. The prices aren’t particularly low andthe staff isn’t particularly helpful. And the often cramped and disorganized stores offend the boutique sensibilities of New Yorkers.

[Yet] what the stores sell gives a pointillist portrait of the New York consumer. Unlike most drugstores, where prescriptions make up the majority of sales, half of Duane Reade’s sales come from food, cosmetics, and the like. That runs from insoles and corn padsbecause New Yorkers walk so much, Duane Reade sells twice the industry average—to foods for the society-X-ray palate. “We have four-foot-long sections of rice cakes. Put those in a suburban store and they all go stale,” says Charboneau. “And we have these soy crisps, which are not the best-tasting things. But they fly off the shelf.”

Make up? The store developed its own line of cosmetic because the top national brand (Cover Girl) appears to target the blonds and the blue-eyed types and New York hasn’t too many of those. And there’s more of that savvy pulse reading going on here:

When New Yorkers make their way to the pharmacy counter, their selections are heavy on sex and therapy and ambivalent about kids. The top-selling sedative, ranked nineteenth nationally, is one of the top five drugs sold at Duane Reade. Also popular here is Viagra, and a couple of anti-AIDS drugs are in the top twenty. But what New Yorkers really specialize in is birth control: Three contraceptives rank in the top 25 of Duane Reade sellers, while no contraceptive breaks the top 50 nationally. “There is no birth-control pill that’s No. 1 in any market except here,” Cuti [the man who made DR what it is today] explains. “It’s the nature of the city. It’s where the action is.”

The aisles are narrow because New Yorkers don’t mind being bumped, and skuzzy because urban types aren’t that bothered by dirt. But they hate lines and so DR has twice the average number of salesclerks ready to hustle you out:

“When I’m catching somebody out of Penn Station moving 100 miles per hour, they want service and they want it quick,” says Cuti. “It’s, ‘I’m carrying my bag, I’m ten minutes late, the dumb train was late, I got to get the Tylenol and my bottle of water as quickly as I can.’"

In the end, it’s all about real estate – figuring out which crummy space will work wonders for the next store (they have 250 of them up and running thus far) and getting a long term lease cheap. But that aside, I have to say that Duane Reade should be on every vistor’s list as a quintessential New York experience. Except, you probably don’t need to make note of it in the tour books. Inevitably you’ll hit on the store during an NYC stop. They have us figured out: Viagra, corn pads and rice cakes – just what you need to survive a day in the city.

NYC Sep 05 076

In that set of NYC blocks, there must be at least six Duane Reade stores.