Blog Series

Hands Across the Industry

Peter Breen
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I unconsciously extended my arm to shake hands as soon as Morry Smulevitz introduced himself. In my defense, it’s hard to unlearn 50 years of social norms overnight.

The vice president of corporate communications for Walgreens Boots Alliance, Morry had sent us instructions the night before. Alex Gourlay had very graciously agreed to keep the appointment for his Hall of Fame interview on March 12, as long as we simply agreed to follow the new social guidelines the world’s largest drugstore retailer had just implemented for employees at HQ in Deerfield, Illinois: maintain three feet of distance, and no handshakes. I was able to get control of myself after the initial goof; Bill Schober, Tim Binder and I later exchanged what probably were the first-ever elbow bumps with an Institute Hall of Fame inductee in the program’s history.

The potential impact of the COVID-19 virus was rapidly taking shape that week, so we had half-expected for the interview to be canceled. We were delighted, then, to be meeting with Gourlay. At the time, however, we had no idea how fortunate we really were: Our own company closed its offices and banned travel that very afternoon as the entire country began preparing in earnest for the pandemic that was about to engulf us.

Had it been canceled, the interview likely would not have been rescheduled – could not have been rescheduled, since Gourlay and Walgreens have had far more pressing concerns since then as the company joined other key retailers in taking a lead role helping consumers (not to mention the nation) deal with the escalating crisis.

Gourlay seems well-suited to that kind of role. While his overall intelligence and industry experience were obvious during our conversation, the compassion he has for consumers and the pride he derives from helping them lead healthier lives are what really stood out during the interview, as you’ll learn while reading our profile.

Walgreens has done an exemplary job responding to the crisis (as we noted in the April issue), overhauling its typical store policies to meet shopper needs, adding additional services to give customers more options, providing a wealth of relevant information to help them cope – and yes, also maintaining a business-as-usual approach when that was still possible. (After all, the magical Easter Bunny didn’t have the luxury of sheltering in place along with the rest of us.) I can’t factually verify that Walgreens has been “Trusted Since 1901,” but I can confidently assert that it’s been trusted by a lot of shoppers since mid-March.

To be sure, we’ve witnessed a lot of compassion across the entire industry since March 12: the many retailers implementing policies to ensure shopper safety and product availability (even if it meant eliminating profit); the many brands donating inventory or money (or both) to support relief efforts; the brands and solution providers putting aside their regular production schedules to make much-needed items for first responders and healthcare personnel, or to help with shortages of key consumer product categories. (We examine some of these initiatives in our flip-cover story on the COVID-19 crisis.)

It’s been a source of pride for us here at the Institute to see how compassionately our industry has responded to the crisis over the last two months (which, frankly, have seemed like two years). There are a lot of hands out there that I’d like to shake in gratitude.

Hopefully, I’ll be allowed to do that again sometime very soon.

More Blog Posts In This Series

  • Empowered Women Empower Women

    2020 was a strange year: frightening, chaotic and full of disruption, both professionally and personally. At times, just making it through the day felt like a tremendous victory. Yet the industry did more than just make it through.
  • Flattening the Funnel

    I am writing this Editor’s Note just after concluding the all-new, all-virtual Path to Purchase Digital Expo. When you participate in a three-day marketing conference as both a speaker and attendee and you wear sweatpants the entire time (even when dressed in formal attire from the waist up), your thoughts can tend toward the surreal.
  • Keeping Up With the Times

    If there is a single image that, for me, aptly illustrates the seismic changes currently taking place in our industry, it’s a shelf talker I noticed at Stop & Shop in early September.