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Architecture + Branding: Eckerd pioneering spirit leaves built legacy past drugstore expiration date

1-Early to market

In September 1898, J. Milton Eckerd and Z. Tatom opened the Erie Cut-Rate Medicine Store in Erie,Pennsylvania, thus becoming pioneers of the discount drugstore industry. The discount outlet met with success early on, offering over the counter medicines, personal hygiene items, tobacco and assorted products found in grocery stores of the era.

Panorama of downtown Erie in 1912, looking West along the 15th Street tracks (source: wikipedia)

In 1912, Milton Eckerd would sell his successful Erie,Pennsylvania store to sons, William and Ken, and opened a new store in Wilmington, Delaware. In the 1920s, the Delaware chain expanded into North Carolina, becoming the leading drugstore chain in the state by the 1930s (source: fundinguniverse.com). Ownership of the Delaware and North Carolina chains, as well as the original store in Erie, would remain within the Eckerd family, although distinct isolated operations (source: fundinguniverse.com).

In 1947, Jack Eckerd, son of the founder Milton, was introduced to the concept of self-service drugstores during a trip to California. In 1949, Jack established QuikChek in Erie, therefore opening the first self-serve drugstore on the East coast (source: fundinguniverse.com). The concept met immediate success. The lower operating cost self-serve model allowed for significantly lower consumer prices, which inadvertently led to consumer confusion between the two Eckerd-run drugstore brands.

Jack Eckerd opted to leave Erie in 1952, and institute the operational model in an entirely new market, purchasing three struggling drugstores in Florida, and turning them into financial successes (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Map of the United States, Florida highlighted red (source: wikipedia)

In 1959, grocery chain Publix, approached Eckerd to build drugstores next to five of its supermarkets in strip shopping malls (source: fundinguniverse.com). The Eckerd-Publix partnership would lead to 150 new Eckerd drugstores. In 1961, Eckerd Drugs of Florida was incorporated, marking the beginning of a state-wide expansion that would follow.

Publix supermarket, near Miami, Florida

2-Growth, competition and industry consolidation

Starting in the late 1960s through the end of the 1970s, Eckerd grew and diversified, acquiring both drugstore and non-drugstore businesses.

In 1970, Eckerd Drugs of Florida was renamed Jack Eckerd Corporation and continued its growth by acquisition strategy throughout the 1970s, purchasing Thrift City Wholesale Drugs, Mading-Dugan Drugs, Galaxy Drugs, Eckerd Drugs Eastern Inc. and Ward Cut-Rate Drug (source: fundinguniverse.com). The acquisition binge culminated in 1977 with the acquisition of Eckerd North Carolina, finally consolidating all Eckerd branded companies under single ownership, allowing Eckerd to leapfrog into the number two position among drugstore chains with 766 stores (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Throughout the 1980s, Jack Eckerd Corporation continued to acquire competitors, although it suffered from massive store closings due in part to a management buyout in 1985. Shuttering some lesser performing stores in the process, Eckerd then resumed adding new locations (source: fundinguniverse.com). In 1990, Eckerd acquired 220 Revco drugs stores when the company declared bankruptcy.

In 1993, Jack Eckerd Corporation was renamed Eckerd Corporation when it returned to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Beginning in 1994, Eckerd had divested its non-drugstore assets to focus on its core retail drugstore operations (source: fundinguniverse.com). In the subsequent years, Eckerd resumed its growth through acquisition strategy, buying North Carolina-based Crown Drugs (1994) and Kerr Drug Stores (1995), acquiring most of the assets of Rite Aid’s Florida operations (1995), and New York-based, 270-unit Fay’s Drug (1996). (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Subsequently in 1996, Eckerd would be acquired by department store, J.C. Penney, merging its Thrift Drug operations, Thrift Drug, Kerr Drugs, Fay’s Drugs, and some Rite Aid stores, under the Eckerd umbrella (source: wikipedia). Purchasing an additional 114 Revco stores in Virginia in 1997, the Eckerd chain was ranked fourth in the nation, behind Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid with 2,778 stores (source: fundinguniverse.com)

3-Weaning off the strip fix

Due almost completely to a growth by acquisition policy, as opposed to an organic growth, Eckerd ended up with a portfolio of disparate, varied and conflicting real estate aesthetics, and stores with divergent looks.

Frank Newman, CEO and president, implemented a strategy in 1996 that was intended to move the chain away from locations in strip malls, which typically were anchored by supermarkets, as by now most supermarkets had pharmacies and were direct competitors to drugstores (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Eckerd, typical strip mall location, Upstate, New York (source: wikipedia)

Eckerd began the process of opening new, larger, freestanding locations, at about 11,000 square feet, designed to offer an enhanced selection of convenience foods and drive-through pharmacy windows (source: fundinguniverse.com). In the late 1990s, Eckerd would continue to vacate existing strip mall locations and relocate existing units into newer freestanding locations. In 1998, the majority of newly opened stores would constitute relocations, 175 of 220 (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Eckerd (prior to Rite Aid conversion)  Rochester, Pennsylvania (source: wikipedia)

Although the chain had embarked on a total redesign of Eckerd stores, it had become hooked on its own medicine, returning to its growth by acquisition blueprint when it absorbed the 141-store Genovese Drug Stores chain in 1999. After the purchase, Eckerd had nearly 3000 stores, and had set its sights on adding 575 new and relocated stores by 2001 (source: fundinguniverse.com). At the time, Eckerd also planned to convert some 2,000 strip mall units to freestanding units by the end of 2010 (source: fundinguniverse.com).

4-Prescription: Becoming a destination

By instituting a visible and distinctive look, style and identity for its stores, Eckerd managed to gain a modicum of success in consolidating its motley collection of divergent and disparate acquisitions into a unified retail theme.

One of the major highlights of the stand alone stores, in addition to increased sales, was the fact that Eckerd stores had graduated to destination status. Now a trip to Eckerd was intentional, as it was no longer a store amongst a collection of other retailers within a strip mall. 

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Old Liverpool Road, Liverpool, New York

On the site, the stores were set back from the street, ringed by parking spaces, and visible from a distance, unlike the strip mall locations that had but a banner sign to identify them. The store design revolved around a basic geometry, rectangular in nature, with little to no articulation.

The entrance was front and center, typically street facing on major street. The front entrance was framed by built-up column elements and pilasters, and featured a vestibule in colder climates, with additional doors located on the sides of the framed entrance.

The front also featured the most ornamentation with high set windows on either side of the entrance. The framed front entrance was capped by a prominent gable that tied the entrance element. The centered front entrance featured a slight arcade that extended to wrap the either side of the vestibule, returning around the side towards the back of the store, and typically terminating into a replica of the gable capped entrance component, opposite the drive-thru pharmacy window.

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Buckley Road, Liverpool, New York

The arcades doubled as covered sidewalk to provide shade in sunnier climates, as well as to add architectural relief to the facades. The drive-thru pharmacy was typically hidden behind, and at the rear, away from view, contributing little by way of visual clutter. 

Predominantly clad in light coloured materials, like white and crème coloured CMU block, EIFS, or precast concrete. The field material was broken up horizontally with banding elements. In light coloured renditions, a distinctive metal banding element in Eckerd blue, tied in with the metal roof sheathing material at the prominent gables.

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Route 11, Clay, New York

Where the material was brick, the colour palette was a darker, warmer, muted, and typically a traditional red. In this rendition, the blue banding was displaced, substituted by a lighter, off-white crème to beige colour. The banding was accomplished with precast concrete elements, coloured stone, or EIFS. Although the blue banding was absent, the metal roof was nonetheless present and accounted for. Keys and various other stone and brick reveals were also featured to dress up the blank facades and add some visual interest.

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Smithfield, North Carolina

Rushing headlong into the plan to move away from strip locations, Eckerd had managed to recreate its portfolio of disparate stores, revitalize its retail presence, and create a recognizable and enviable retail brand image in less than a decade.

5-From forgettable to recognizable

In July 2004, J.C. Penney sold its Eckerd stores, dividing the lot between Jean Coutu Group and CVS, with the stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic going to the former, and the Southeast and Southwest US stores going to the latter.

CVS rapidly converted its newly acquired Eckerd locations, changing exterior signage almost instantly, removing the Eckerd name in several markets.

CVS/pharmacy (Former Eckerd) Southside Place, Texas (source: wikipedia)

Conversely, Jean Coutu Group initially merged Eckerd with its American pharmacy chain, Brooks Pharmacy, to form Brooks Eckerd. The merged chain would later be sold to Rite Aid in June of 2007, with Rite Aid applying a Paint, Powder, Re-set (P.P.R.) exercise to revamp the stores, along with a revised design scheme and new signage (source: wikipedia). By the end of September 2007, the over a century old Eckerd name had effectively been erased completely from the American marketplace.

Rite Aid, new prototypical storefront (RiteAid.com) 

CVS/pharmacy, new prototypical storefront, St. Louis, Missouri (source: wikipedia)

Near the end, Eckerd had one of the newest retail store stocks in the industry, with some 65% of its stores less than 5 years old. In the process of carving up the Eckerd real estate, the entrenched design remained, with seemingly only the name changed. Due principally to Eckerd’s unprecedented build out of stand alone stores in its last decade, the architectural identity that Eckerd had established, nurtured and promoted will remain recognizable in the retail presence of its acquiring competitors, serving as a visual link and constant reminder of the former drug store pioneer.

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


One thought on “Architecture + Branding: Eckerd pioneering spirit leaves built legacy past drugstore expiration date

  1. I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!

    Posted by Geraldo | August 27, 2012, 7:36 pm

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