Shoppers Drug Mart – by Nava

Most of my life, I´ve been listening to all of my Canadian relatives tell me, “Everything´s better in the United States.” Well, yeah, maybe that´s the case from a purely capitalist standpoint – we Americans do love our shopping malls, department stores, et al, but from a quality of life perspective, that wouldn´t be my primary reason for picking up and moving from Canada to the United States. I´ve made the strenuous argument over the years that this is not the case (especially not at present), but my wacky but lovable family refuses to listen to me. Now, with US and Canadian currency practically at par, and a good many of the American chain stores open for business in the larger Canadian cities, there really isn´t much lacking as far as selection. But, if we´re talking drug store chains, I must defer to the Canadian chain, Shoppers Drug Mart. If you happen to be a mainstream fragrance and beauty addict, hands down, this is the place to go. Walgreens, CVS, Eckerd and the rest can´t hold a candle to the newly re-vamped Shoppers Drug Mart stores. Personally, I can disappear into one for hours and emerge significantly lighter in the wallet. It´s gotten to the point that I almost deliberately forget to bring certain toiletry items with me when I visit my Toronto relatives, just so I have an excuse to go to Shoppers. Oh; forgot my deodorant? I gotta go to Shoppers. Can´t walk around all stinky now, can I?

Years ago, Shoppers Drug Mart was just your basic run-of-the-mill drug store chain. There was absolutely nothing extraordinary about it; you went there for your prescriptions, shampoo and other toiletries and that was about it. About 4 years ago, I happened upon a newly-opened Shoppers location when I was genuinely in need of something – I can´t recall what anymore, so I wandered in and was promptly blown away by this new store. It was sectioned off into two areas: one, with high-end cosmetics and fragrances – Lancome, Dior, Chanel, Clarins and other department store-staple brands, displayed so that you can sniff, touch and test to your heart´s content. The other side had the usual array of drugstore makeup brands and fragrances, along with the coveted French skincare lines, Vichy, Avene and La Roche Posay, which used to be almost impossible to get in the US. The rest of the store wasn´t too shabby either: all the toiletry basics, a special section devoted just to vitamins and supplements, pharmacy, greeting cards, housewares, groceries, photo processing, post office…this place seemed to have it all. I must have had that deer-in-the-headlights look when I was approached by a sales associate in the high-end cosmetics section, because the first thing she asked me was if I was OK. I said I was fine, and asked, where did all this come from? She told me that this was one of their new concept stores, and at that time, was one of only two in the Toronto area. They were testing the layout and the merchandise to see whether or not Shoppers could be one of those “destination” type stores, where you could pick up everything from a container of milk to a bottle of Chanel No. 5. I guess their formula was successful since more of these stores have opened in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as existing locations undergoing renovations to update them.

Now, virtually every Shoppers location has morphed into one of these destination stores you can play in for hours if you so choose. Their list of brands has expanded to include BeneFit, Smashbox, L´Occitane, Boots No. 7 and other new lines that seem to pop up every time I go in there. Speaking of Boots, I can see where the inspiration for this type of store came from since I think Shoppers borrowed a lot of their layout from the Boots chain in the UK. I did happen to get lost in some of those stores when I visited London a few years ago.

What I can´t seem to figure out at this point is why this type of drugstore/beauty emporium/lifestyle store hasn´t migrated southward, tickling the fancy of any of the major drug store chains here in the US. Granted, we have become oversaturated with Sephoras in recent years, but Shoppers has a completely different vibe to it. I really enjoy the fact that I can shop for both high-end items and drugstore items in the same location, whereas Sephora stocks only high-end lines. Plus, the convenience of being able to buy laundry detergent, Tylenol and other such items completes the shopping experience in such a marvellous way. Where I live, Walgreens seems intent on taking over the world, and the CVS, Rite Aid and Eckerd stores are so dingy and neglected looking that I rarely patronize them. A few CVS locations have added a couple of the French skincare lines I mentioned earlier, but they´re displayed in the same nondescript manner they stock everything else. The new Shoppers stores are clean, well-lit and organized to a fault. There´s some marketing genius at work here; not that I really care about that sort of stuff, but whoever is responsible for implementing these changes gets high marks from me for vision. When I´m at home in New York, traversing the suburban retail landscape and all the American drugstore chains, I think – boy, I would really love to have a Shoppers here.

I would love for any Canadian readers to weigh in on their feelings about Shoppers. Here in Toronto, they´re pretty much the only game in town. I know of a few Rexall/PharmaPlus locations, but not many. My family thinks I´m a bit off my rocker for waxing rhapsodic about a drug store, so I´m in need of some validation!

  • Joy says:

    I love Shoppers, and spend a good long time there whenever I am in Canada. Why isn’t there Shoppers/Boots-type drugstore in the US? I’d be there daily.

  • clare stella says:

    😡 oh boy, this sounds like a store i could love. living near boston it seems we have ordinary drugstores (cvs, walgreens, etc.) and Ulta which is fun because you can try lots of different products but there are really no stores in which you could buy cosmetics (high and low end) and also buy frozen dinners, pedometers, and chocolate! i do fear that if we were to have something like that i would spend my entire paycheck in one fell swoop. every time i travel i always seem to find myself in a drugstore so that i can check out their selection of perfume and cosmetics. oh, to be rich!

  • Vasily says:

    In the late 90s, I finally did a motor tour of the Maritime Provinces, a vacation I’d wanted to take for twenty years. I made it through part of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI during the trip (they were building the bridge to PEI at the time so the only way over was still by ferry). Haven’t made it to the Gaspe Peninsula or Newfoundland/Labrador: they’ll have to wait for the next trip.

    My experience was: a land of great physical beauty, filled with some of the most gracious and friendly people I’ve ever met while on vacation. The Canadians I ran into seemed genuinely pleased that I was visiting. For some reason, I fell in love with the town of Halifax, and was trying to figure out how I could manage to make a living there.

    So if you’re from the USA and haven’t done a Canadian vacation, do so. You won’t regret it. I know this isn’t about perfume, but reading about Canada made me wish I could afford another vacation up there. Maybe next year.

  • Lucy says:

    There are these fancy drugstores in fancy neighborhoods in NYC, Bigelows is one of the last of them, but they still exist all over the Upper East Side, with all the high end cosmetics and perfumes. Some in midtown too, that have more niche-y things, as well as very fancy toothpastes and hair brushes and immported products and stockings, etc. Zitomer’s, for one, is nice.
    But these Canadian places sound like they are big and impersonal enough that you can browse around without attracting the attention of over-zealous Sales Assistants, so it’s the best of both worlds. I think drugstores have become something like the new department/hardware stores, if the bomb dropped tomorrow you could recreate Western Civilization from one that survived…

  • Lara says:

    The closest thing to that in the US is Ultra. They have both some higher end products and some traditional drug-store brands (L’Oreal, Neutrogena). They don’t carry high-end perfume (Joy, L’Heure Bleu), but do carry department store perfumes (Armani Code, L de Lolita Lempicka)and you can try them on.

  • Anna says:

    Hello all,

    I’m a lurker/frequent reader but just had to jump in this SDM discussion and profess my love as well. I too am a huge fan of the points program. Great way to treat yourself to a full bottle of something you really want but don’t necessarily want to pay full price for. Not only that, but their sales are excellent. My latest acquisitions were a bottle of B*Men for $19.99 during a Father’s Day sale and a big bottle of Youth Dew Body Satinee also for $19.99. Christmas, Boxing Week, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s/Father’s Day are great times to stock up on discounted gift sets as well.

    I used to live downtown and it was like Christmas everyday when the newly renovated location at Yonge & College opened complete with the gorgeous beauty boutique and it’s open 24 hours too. If any American readers are planning a visit to Toronto, there’s actually a Days Hotel literally steps away. You can stock up on travel sized toiletries and get a bottle of Chanel at 4 am if you really wanted to.

    PS-The Pharmaplus at the Yonge & Eglinton Centre has some great sales sometimes too, I picked up a bottle of Moschino’s I Love Love for (my favourite price) $19.99 there a few months ago.

  • pyramus says:

    Shoppers Drug Mart is fantastic, even in the dumpy little East Coast city-town-thing where I live. The Beauty Boutique section is like a little high-end store right inside the doorway, and they have some amazing stuff. A couple of years ago they started carrying Comptoir Sud Pacifique; they dropped the line after six months, but not before I got a half-dozen of the scents.

    Their rewards program is called the Optimum Card. You get points with everything you buy ($1 gets you 10 points), they regularly have 20x bonus point days, and 75,000 points gets you $150 worth of free whatever, except on other bonus days when it gets you $200 worth. So if you play your cards right, you can spend $350 at Shoppers (easy to do, because you can buy iPods there) and then get $200 worth of free fragrance (or whatever else you like).

    I spend way too much money at Shoppers, but hey; free fragrance!

  • mbeth says:

    Beauty Boutiques are what they call the high end cosmetic/fragrance areas in the Shoppers Drugmart Stores

  • mbeth says:

    I live in Toronto where there are quite a few Beauty Boutiques.
    The other thing that’s really great about them is that they have a points program ( a really good one ) and you can use your points to get those high end cosmetics and fragrances for free.
    We all know how difficult it is to get discounts on those products, They’ve recently introduced their own line of organic foods. Bigelow’s in New York is pretty great though

  • carmencanada says:

    Shoppers Drug Mart is my escape when I visit my parents in Ottawa — there’s one within walking distance, I don’t drive, and they live in an apartment block… I need the breather! I remember spending hours there when they were first revamped. Now, well, as I *do* live in Paris, I’ve kind of gotten over them, but if I need a quick French product fix, that’s where I’m headed.

  • PlaysbyScent says:

    A well-stocked SDM is a thing of wonder – Nuxe! Benefit! Smashbox! Guerlain! All those pricey face creams and lip glosses and lip plumpers that Holt Renfrew has behind a glass case are right out on a shelf for people like me to poke and ponder! And all the pefumes that can be a pain to test in a department store! Grab! Throw it all in your cart! Buy!

    And if you think I’m bad my hubby’s even worse, I can’t get him out of there without a bunch of shampoo, pedometers, Amy’s frozen dinners, cedar-scented hand lotions, and Green and Blacks chocolate coming along.

    I haven’t been impressed with London Drugs, they only ever seem to have one check-out person functioning, if that, and we’ve often abandoned our cart and left after realizing it’s a sort of reverse of Hotel California (‘you can check out but you can never leave’). At London Drugs it’s ‘you can leave but you can never check out’.

    Anyway – who ever would have thought that drugstores could be so much fun?

  • March says:

    It has irked me for years that in our consumerist nirvana, we’re stuck with dumpy drug stores like CVS and Walgreens (at least on the east coast, I am sure other regions have their dominant players.) I guess part of the CVS thing is they’re unmotivated to change anything, since they are the monopoly, having eaten all the smaller local chains (e.g., Drug Fair, Dart, etc.) over the last two decades. The stores are always busy, so what do they care? And as Olfacta said, there used to be a separate breed of “pharmacy” that were more like the French pharmacies, with high end things, but I think with a few exceptions they’ve been driven out by the chains.

    Retail/commercial real estate is funny. I live in one of the highest $$$ metro areas in the country, but our local mall is so dumpy not even Starbucks is in there (Tysons in Va. is I think up to three in the same mall!) There’s clearly something “wrong” with our mall but I don’t know what it is. If I were queen… 😕

  • Karen G says:

    The Shopper’s Drug Marts in the larger centres are pretty impressive now aren’t they? Where I live, in the boonies, our local Shopper’s is still one of the smaller stores, but has a pretty decent selection nevertheless. And their people behind the cosmetics counter are WAY more helpful than any SA you find in a department store.
    Out here in western Canada we’ve had London Drugs for decades, and they’ve always sold higher end fragrances and cosmetics, along with the regular drug store stuff. Also, computer and camera, electronics etc. My friends and I used to spend all our baby-sitting money there back in the day. 🙂

  • mharvey816 says:

    Ah, this takes me back to when my husband and I used to go up to Toronto for the film festival every September…I adored SDM even back then, just because their d/s beauty displays were so much better than in the US (Revlon testers? Really?), and for all the stuff they had that you couldn’t get here (I still have stockpiles of the Quo powder foundation). I couldn’t imagine that they’ve made them better, but obviously they have. Now I *really* want to get back up there again, darn it. It’s great to have Vichy here in the US now, but CVS is just not the same (not even close).

  • Lora says:

    I love the concept of a drugstore where you can get both low- and high-end products. As a busy working mom, my shopping time has been dramatically eaten into! So it would be great to be able to schlep over to grab some toilet paper and get my beauty-product and perfume fix at the same time. However, I agree with the people who said this concept might not fly in the US, especially in the currect economic environment. But one can dream!

  • MJ says:

    Holy Moly, I gotta get across the border to Windsor soon! It may be the American-patron strip and casino town, but they have a Shoppers.

    On a “home” note I am not impressed by, but can deal with my local clean and organized CVS but loath Walgreens – at the least, the ones around my home are distinctly low rent and not too clean. Ick!

  • Olfacta says:

    Years ago in the U.S. there were high-end pharmacies and drugstores that carried upscale cosmetics and perfumes as well as the regular stuff. There was one on my corner in L.A.,the Santa Glen Pharmacy, where you could buy aspirin AND Joy perfume. I was a student then so I couldn’t afford to actually shop there, but never ignored the testers! (It’s gone now, of course.)

    These stores have disappeared, fallen to the all-about-the-price orientation of the Walgreens and CVS’s and so on. It is my opinion that almost no one in the U.S. can afford to shop in any kind of full-service store anymore. IMO, this is one of the dirty little secrets of our diminishing incomes,a.k.a. the Wal-Martization of our economy.

    It would be great to see retail outlets like the one you’re describing, but unless they can match the prices of the online discounters and/or the discount stores, I don’t believe they’d do very well here.

    • Musette says:

      LA still has the occasional shop like that – the Santa Monica pharmacy (pre-Northridge destruction) was a lot like that. Larchmont used to be like that too before they became 99% beauty stuff….but when you find a gem like that it’s like finding a pot o’ gold, isn’t it?
      I agree with you on the price-point focus and it’s a shame, really. I love LA neighborhoods (Larchmont, Wilshire/SantaMonica (yes, to the rest of the world it’s a neighborhood – sorry) and nearly all of SF for their ability to support and hang on to independent shops. As Rosarita said, out here, it’s Walgreens and Wal-Mart all the way, baby!b-(

      Hey, Louise! Maybe we should organize a Drugstore Event!LOL! You know, like seniors are busing across the border to buy prescrips?

      • Louise says:

        Always up for a party, arentcha, doll :d/ ? We’ll scheme on this 😉

        • MattS says:

          A road trip of all of us heading across the border to buy perfume and prescription drugs sounds like a movie in the making. Quick–somebody start working on a script!

    • Nava says:

      I agree that this concept probably would not be successful here in the US. I have no idea why, since I’m no marketing expert, but I just don’t see it happening.

  • Louise says:

    Oh, must come North! I would spend days in this wonder of a drugstore…like Musette, I love drugstore shopping…but also love the boutiques :”> Um, maybe I just love shopping 😕 ?

    I lived in Montreal about 25 years ago, and remember finding shopping (on a student budget) very different than in the U.S. Stores were either really high-end (Ogilvy was off-limits for me), super cheap on Ste. Catherine St. or St. Laurent, or very cool artisanal. I wonder now how homogenized the shops have become, or god forbid, how Americanized?

    • Nava says:

      There is a lot of “Americanization” going on here in Canada, but when you’re talking retail, Canadians don’t seem to mind. It’s the other stuff, which I won’t get into that gets everyone all hot under the collar.

  • rosarita says:

    Oh, that sounds soooo nice, making me =:) with envy. A store like that out here in the Walmart Wasteland would be heaven!

  • Musette says:

    Oooh! Jeallllous!>:p (I think this is the jealous emoticon)…

    makes me want to fly to Toronto to go shop in a drugstore – I LOVE drugstore shopping more than I love boutique shopping – must be the hoi polloi in me. Is it anything like the original Bigelow pharmacy?

    • Nava says:

      These stores are nothing like the original Bigelow, but I definitely suggest that you visit one if you can. 🙂

  • Kim says:

    London Drugs in Western Canada is another good source of high/low combinations – Lancome, Dior, Vichy, La Roche, as well as Maybelline and Revlon. Plus they have an electronics and computer section. So you can get Chanel No 5, milk, and a new cell phone! But I too was recently impressed with Shoppers – the one I went into carried Smashbox cosmetics and had a great perfume selection. I agree with you that these stores are much better than what is offered in the US – kind of like Target with a good department store cosmetics and perfume section.

    • Nava says:

      That’s a great comparison, Kim. They do remind me a bit of Target since the aisles are pretty spacious and the store is very well lit as opposed to WalMart, where IMHO, it’s like shopping in a cave!

  • Erin T says:

    Nava, just read an article where, I seem to remember, they were discussing the genius behind the new Shopper’s Drug Mart. He is a low-key, hands-on guy and he is now in charge of the ailing Gap, hoping to revitalize the brand.

    • Nava says:

      Thanks for that info, Erin. If this article is available online, I would love for you to post the link so I can read it. Thanks!

      • Erin T says:

        Hi Nava, found it but, don’t know if this will post properly. The article is called “Minding the Gap” and is here in “report on Business” magazine:

        Very interesting article – I hope he shows all those snarky industry insiders what a humble, laidback Canadian boy can do!

        • Erin T says:

          Should point out that all the interesting Shopper’s info and descriptions of Murphy’s personality are on page 2, in case you feel like skipping the Gap’s woes 🙂