Boots, London & Authentic Private Brand

Here is the next in my series of posts stemming from my thanksgiving week trip to London. It is almost impossible to stress how significant the impact of the iconic British drugstore Boots has been on Private Brands and drugstore retailers in the US. Whether you realize it or not their Private Brands portfolio strategy, retail store formats and merchandising are now a part of the American retail landscape. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it was true but it was not until my wife and I walked several stores in London that I grasped the extent of the impact. If you have walked a Duane Reade/Walgreens Look Boutique, bought No7 at target or purchased a CVS Private Brand beauty product you have experienced the impact of Boots.

However what you have not experienced is the compelling brand that is Boots, they have built a compelling and authentic story that is unparalleled in US drug retail. They have embraced who they are and who they want to be and created a unique and authentic brand experience that sets it apart from their big three American cousins who blur together in an undifferentiated mass of identical corner stores and generic Private Brands.

The following excerpt from their website details the story of Boots including their more than 100 year history of Private Brands:

Early Days
Boots has its roots in the mid-19th century when John Boot, an agricultural worker, moved to Nottingham to start a new business.   He opened a small herbalist store on Goose Gate in 1849, from which he prepared and sold herbal remedies.  His business soon proved popular, especially with the working poor of Nottingham’s new industries, who could not afford the services of a doctor.  After John’s death in 1860, his widow, Mary, continued trading, with the help of her young son, Jesse, who became a full partner when he was 21.  The store continued to flourish, and, in 1877, Jesse took sole control.

“Health for a Shilling”
Jesse’s talent for business was soon evident.  He expanded the range of products he sold to include proprietary medicines and household necessities.  He adopted a strategy of buying stock in bulk and selling his goods much cheaper than his competitors, advertising under the slogan “Health for a Shilling”.  Customers flocked to buy his affordable products and his turnover increased rapidly, allowing him to move into larger premises on Goose Gate in 1881.  This was followed by yet more shops in Nottingham and then, in 1884, Jesse’s first shops outside the city, in Lincoln and Sheffield.   In the same year he also employed his first qualified pharmacist to dispense medicines, and oversee the recruitment of others, enhancing the professional reputation of the company.  Jesse’s policy of superior goods at competitive prices delivered with expert care, meant that the Boots name quickly became synonymous with quality, value and service.

“We declare-
 For Pure Drugs
 For Qualified Assistants
 For First-class Shops
 For Reasonable Prices
 For your Good Health
 For our Moderate Profits
We minister to the comfort of the community in a hundred ways.”
Jesse Boot, 1897

“From modest beginnings we are gradually raising to a high pitch that average excellence of equipment and convenience for customers which are the noteworthy features of our establishments, in addition to the good quality of everything we sell.
Jesse Boot, 1898

“Largest, Best and Cheapest – Branches Everywhere”
Jesse had ambitions for Boots to be a nationwide chain and so he began acquiring new premises and also some chains of chemists.  The store network grew rapidly: in 1890 he had just 10 stores and by 1914 this had risen to over 550 stores throughout England, Scotland and Wales.  The range of products sold also expanded beyond traditional chemists lines – from stationery, to silverware and picture framing, as well as the introduction of new services like Booklovers Libraries and Cafes in the larger stores.  Many of these new lines and services were fostered by Jesse’s wife, Florence, whom he had married in 1886 (they went on to have three children together – John, Dorothy and Margery).  The growing retail side of the business was partnered by a growth in manufacturing of Boots own brand products and research into new pharmaceuticals and chemicals.  Sites on Island Street and Station Street in Nottingham housed Boots growing factories, warehouses, laboratories and offices.

 “By keeping prices down, whilst maintaining the purity and quality of what we sell, we have ensured the permanency of our trade.”
Jesse Boot, 1904

“our name has become a household word, and we have many thousands of customers whose parents have dealt with our firm””
Jesse Boot, 1910

“Boots Care”
The wellbeing of their employees was very important to Jesse and Florence and they provided welfare, education, sports and social facilities for their growing retail and manufacturing workforce.  Full time welfare professionals were employed and a surgery was established at the Island Street site to care for the health of employees.  A Day Continuation School (later renamed Boots College) was opened to provide extended academic and vocational education for younger employees.  Jesse and Florence enjoyed organizing and hosting social events and outings for staff in the early days of the business – whether it was trips to the seaside or tea parties and musical concerts at their house on the banks of the River Trent.  As the number of employees grew, they fostered and helped fund the establishment of numerous sporting and social clubs and societies, with the belief that healthy and happy employees would make Boots a happy and productive place to work.

“We are primarily comrades – and close comrades, moreover – in business; and this is no mean tie, for business, claiming as it does so much of our time and talents, is a highly important feature in our lives… If our labour is nothing to us but a means of procuring bread and butter, then our lives must be a poor thankless round of dull task work… while we are primarily business associates, our mutual interests are by no means restricted to business in any limited sense.  Fellowship in recreation, fellowship in ideals, common hopes, common sympathies, and common humanity bind us together; and whatever fosters this happy union is valuable.”
Jesse Boot, 1919

“when we build factories in which it is a joy to work, when we establish pension funds which relieve our workers of fears for their old age, when we reduce the number of working days in the week, or give long holidays with pay to our retail assistant, we are setting a standard which Governments in due time will be able to make universal”
John Boot, 1938

“Chemists to the Nation”
Following the First World War, Jesse, who was approaching his 70th birthday and increasingly incapacitated by arthritis, decided to retire and in 1920, he sold Boots to the United Drug Company of America.  During the next 13 years of American ownership Boots continued to prosper and grow: a new manufacturing site was acquired at Beeston in 1927 and in 1933 the 1000th Boots store was opened.  In 1933 the United Drug Company sold its holding in Boots to a group of British financiers led by John Boot, Jesse’s son.  Under John’s Chairmanship the company continued to develop: the first overseas store opened in New Zealand in 1936; key brands No7 and Soltan were both launched in the 1930s.  John believed passionately that Boots should offer exceptional customer service and introduced new initiatives such as 24-hour opening times to serve the public better.  He also continued his parents’ tradition of staff welfare – improving working conditions, reducing hours and introducing pensions for all employees.

“people cannot regulate their illnesses to fit in with definite times; prescriptions must be dispensed sometimes during Sundays and holidays”

“the public are getting to rely on us more and more, both when they are sick as well as when they are in health.”
John Boot, 1924

No7 launched in 1935

The Modern Era
Following the Second World War, the company continued to expand its manufacturing and research capabilities and the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 led to a vast increase in dispensing.  Self-service was introduced to stores in the 1950s and international export and manufacturing businesses were strengthened.  More recent decades have seen the introduction of successful brands such as 17 cosmetics and Botanics, and new business ventures such as Boots Opticians.  A new chapter in Boots history started on 31st July 2006 with the merger with Alliance Unichem, to become part of Alliance Boots, an international pharmacy-led health and beauty group.  In June 2007 Alliance Boots was acquired by AB Acquisitions Limited (a company jointly controlled by certain funds advised by KKR and Stefano Pessina), and its shares were delisted from the London Stock Exchange.

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Christopher Durham
Christopher Durham is the president of My Private Brand and the co-founder of The Vertex Awards. He is a strategist, author, consultant and retailer who built brands at Delhaize-owned Food Lion, and lead strategy and brand development for Lowe’s Home Improvement. He has consulted with retailers around the world on their private brand portfolios including: Family Dollar, Petco, Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, Metro (Canada), TLW (Taiwan) and Hola (Taiwan). Durham has published five definitive books on private brands, including his first book, Fifty2: The My Private Brand Project. In 2017, he will debut his newest book, Vanguard: Vintage Originals, a visual tour of innovation and disruption in private brand going back to the mid-1800’s. Dynamic in his presentation while down to earth and frank in his opinions, he has presented at numerous conferences, including FUSE, The Dieline Conference, Packaging that Sells, Omnishopper and PLMA’a annual trade show in Chicago. Durham lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Laraine, and two daughters, Olivia and Sarah.