How Bartell Drugs is balancing 130 years of history and a cutting-edge digital transformation
Digital transformation is change, and in the world of the enterprise, change is unrelenting. From a single location purchased by 21-year-old pharmacist George H Bartell Sr in 1890, Bartell Drugs has become the United States’ oldest family-owned drugstore chain – an iconic brand in the Pacific Northwest. Achieving constancy and longevity through a great depression, a great recession, two world wars and myriad upheavals that mark almost 130 years of history, the brand is an American success story. Walking the line between the traditional and the futuristic, while always delivering the highest quality of service to its customers, Bartell’s is making strides towards a bold digital future. “We want to bring Bartell’s into the modern digital world and ensure that its brand and products will still be here serving our communities a hundred years from now,” says Kari Escobedo, Senior Vice President (SVP) of IT at Bartell’s. Escobedo, along with new CEO Kathi Lentzsch and other Sr Executives are working to build teams to shape Bartell’s digital transformation strategy. “Technology is an ever-changing landscape,” says Lentzch. “It’s important that we adapt while maintaining the level of service that our customers have come to expect from Bartell’s. With Kari leading our digital transformation, we are offering our customers more choice than ever.” This approach will carry the company into the fourth industrial revolution and, hopefully, into the 22nd century.
Prior to joining the company in July 2018, Escobedo spent over a decade working for some of the Pacific Northwest’s largest, most game-changing companies. From years of growing up in a military household to experiences at Starbucks, Microsoft, T-Mobile, and Kaiser Permanente of WA, she shares how the transformation values of continually driving innovation, promoting community and diversity, and championing adaptability are informing Bartell’s digital transformation.
“I grew up in the Marine Corps, moving around every couple of years. I’ve lived all over the country and parts of the world – that's what you do as a military child,” recalls Escobedo. “Every two to three years, we would pick up and move to another state. My siblings and I got dropped into a whole new school on a regular basis.” Escobedo credits her frequent relocations into new cities, cultures and social dynamics at an early age for a trait she has found invaluable throughout her career: adaptability. “I got very good at finding my way and finding things about myself that integrate well into new situations,” she explains. In her career, she quickly found: “You get really good at reading the organization, the culture, seeing opportunities and being able to stand back and say: ‘Where do I fit in this picture? Where I can use what I do best to help the company?’ One thing that I lean on a lot is my adaptability coming into new organizations.”
Adapting to different environments is a skill that Bartell’s has integrated into its business model for a long time; each of the brand’s 68 locations is uniquely tailored to its neighborhood and customer base. “Our stores fit into their neighborhoods architecturally, but also about 30% of the products we stock are local to the Pacific Northwest,” Escobedo explains. “There are some stores that are partnered with the Post Office, because that’s something their neighborhoods were lacking when they opened.” Other stores have everything from growler stations and espresso bars to hand-dipped ice cream stands and product assortments for office workers on lunch breaks. “The makeup of the product selection is focused on what customers need versus only what we want to sell them,” she says. “It differentiates us from some of our big box competitors.”
Bartell’s also adapts its instore experience so all feel welcome. “There was a conscious decision made to have shorter fixtures in all stores. With a lower profile, our stores feel more open. You can see across the store and find people; it’s more inviting.” A feeling of welcome and personalized experience is key to the way Bartell’s does business. Lentzch comments: “Whether it’s a Bartell’s customer or an employee, there is one common theme: it’s the people that make the difference. Kari gets that.”
Escobedo’s priority is to harness the power of digital transformation to provide the company with more ways to reach its customers, while honoring the traditional heritage established by the Bartell family. “In Seattle, we have a pretty tech-savvy customer base, but we also have a customer base that really appreciates and demands personalization,” she explains. “They need to know you and you need to know them as a customer. That's just part of the relationship-driven environment that we have in the Northwest. It’s what Bartell's is known for.”
Escobedo’s leadership style is uniquely suited for Bartell’s transformation. “I love to come in and build sustainable change,” she enthuses, recalling her time at telecom giant T-Mobile and Starbucks. Escobedo constantly asks herself: “How do we keep driving innovation? You can find possibilities everywhere. You don’t have to be introducing new products that nobody’s seen before, but you need to be innovating for your customers.” In terms of e-commerce, Bartell’s has taken a very customer centric approach, working in conjunction with Amazon Prime Now and several other well-known last-mile shopping delivery services on same day delivery of non-pharmacy items. “We’re channel agnostic right now,” she explains. “Whichever company you buy our products through, the strategy we’ve put together is focused on giving our customer’s choice and the opportunity to get our products in the easiest way for them – we want to be where they shop versus making them come to us.” On the pharmacy side, Escobedo and Bartell’s are working in conjunction with Californian start-up, NimbleRx, to provide delivery services for prescriptions and commonly purchased OTC products. “It allows us to really fulfil a strategy built around making it super easy for customers to buy things from Bartell’s when and where they want them,” she explains.
While many things are changing around them, Escobedo’s team relies on her ability to build excitement and to lead by example. “My job is to help my teams and business partners succeed – because if they are successful, then we all win,” she says. “It is critical to be transparent and to clearly define expectations for myself and my teams. I hold them accountable and they hold me accountable. With that comes mutual trust and a comfortability that fits well in our organization,” said Escobedo. This isn’t limited to the teams she leads. With vast knowledge and relationships in the technology world, and the experts in that space, Escobedo chooses the right partners and vendors that will champion for Bartell’s and their goals.
Escobedo is embracing technological wins of every size. She uses small changes like augmenting legacy point-of-sale systems with user-friendly mobile-driven solutions to promote a culture that is accepting of and enthusiastic about more radical transformations. “Many of our employees have been at Bartell’s for a long time and they love this company. That means, as we move to adopt and leverage some of these technologies, there's a significant change management component we have to take into consideration,” Escobedo explains. “AI and machine learning. Those are big, scary words for many traditional retailers.” Currently, she is pursuing several proof-of-concept tests of predictive analytics and automation, which she hopes will help to demystify the functionality and experience of incorporating leading-edge technology for Bartell’s team. “With a new ERP implementation, Kari has helped us overcome many challenges. She is a strong leader who collaborates well and knows how to develop her people. I’m confident her team will continue to drive our technology improvements to enhance our customer experience,” says Lentzch.
Looking forward, Escobedo relishes the chance to continue balancing transformation and tradition. “It's interesting to be able to really change and move where our customers expect us to be, but still embrace and celebrate the long history and deep roots of Bartell’s,” she says. “We've had some great accomplishments over the last six months. I'm super excited about the shift in thinking and the ideas that are coming from my technology team. Through the rest of this year, we are building a great foundation to continue to launch a more enhanced and personalized digital experience for our customers.” For the first 129 years of its existence, Bartell Drugs was shaped by a world that went from steam to the moon to the internet. The next 129 years of Bartell Drugs’ history will be shaped by the initiatives that Escobedo and her team pursue over the next few years.