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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - Say "Walgreens" and what probably comes to mind is a strip-mall drugstore surrounded by a parking lot.
But step down School Street in Boston to Washington and, when it opens to the public at 10 a.m. Wednesday, you will find a Walgreens offering fresh-rolled sushi, smoothies, even Scotch – a whole new kind of 24-hour drugstore in a modern landmark building that once housed the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank (now part of Citizens Bank) and, in its last incarnation, a Borders book shop. The building, which first opened in 1972, was designed by architects Gerhard Kallmann and N. Michael McKinnell – who also designed the new Boston City Hall – and with its eight 65-foot-tall cast concrete columns and tall wall of glass overlooking the busy street corner, is a rare example of "midcentury modern" architecture in downtown Boston.
When Borders shut down in 2011, 10-24 School Street became a hole in Downtown Crossing the city was desperate to fill –- and for Walgreens, it was a high-visibility location that held the promise of being another important national testbed as the Chicago-based chain battles for billions of dollars in business with CVS, Rite Aid, supermarket chains and WalMart. Some 250,000 students, tourists, downtown workers, and other pedestrians pass within blocks of the new site, creating the potential for high foot traffic and rapid feedback.
"We get a lot of transactions through the store, and we get a really quick read on the things that are working or the things that need to be tweaked," Walgreens divisional vice president Beth Stiller said.
Besides lots of fresh food and a full-line package store upstairs that includes many New England craft brews, the bakery features treats from local bakeries like Sweet Tooth of South Boston, and the School Street doors have been reopened to provide access to a full-line cosmetics business and a nail salon where women can get their nails done for $12. At the pharmacy, the pharmacist on duty sits, approachably, at a desk at the front – rather than standing on a platform looking down on patrons – and there is a private room for consultations. And while this store is about twice as big in floor area as an average Walgreens, it still has, according to company officials, the same 20,000 "SKUs," or specific product items, in inventory – explaining how much airier the inside feels, with less floor clutter and easier-to-navigate aisles, than a typical chain drugstore.
"You'll never see this in your little local neighborhood store," Stiller said as she pointed around the interior Tuesday afternoon, "but what you will start to see is elements of things that work here embedded into the 8,000 stores" Walgreens operates nationwide "as we test, try, refine."’
Jessica Campbell, a drugstore retailing expert with Kantar Retail in Boston, said compared to rivals like CVS or Rite Aid, "This is completely unique. This is the Disney World of drug stores."
Besides being a high-traffic location and experimental test-bed in its own right, Campbell said Walgreen’s may succeed in using it as a giant billboard, too. "These are the things that are going to make shoppers think twice about Walgreen's and say, 'Hey, I had this really great experience in Downtown Crossing. Maybe I'll think about going there on my way home from work in the suburbs.'"
Boston Redevelopment Authority director Peter Meade said, along with the imminent groundbreaking at One Franklin Street – the "Filene’s Pit" site that’s been idle for nearly five years, but is now on track to become a 40-story tower with sidewalk retail – and rapid sales of apartments and condominiums at towers under construction further down Washington Street, Downtown Crossing is enjoying accelerating momentum.
"This is such an unusual store," Meade said, "I think people will come in here and celebrate being in the downtown."
With videographer John E. Stuart and video editor Beth Kidwell