Walgreens’ Joe Hartsig discusses balancing traditional, digital

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Walgreens’ Joe Hartsig discusses balancing traditional, digital

By Seth Mendelson - 06/21/2018
Joe Hartsig leaves little to chance when discussing the future of retail and the role digital will play in it. In fact, if you were one of the several hundred attendees at the Digital Disruption Innovation Summit, put on by Walgreens, Drug Store News and Mack Elevation, Hartsig made it quite clear what his views are on the digital revolution.

“When I was thinking about what subject I should focus on for this meeting, I wondered whether we should talk about health and wellness, or should we talk about beauty or our stores?” Hartsig told the audience of more than 200 fellow Walgreens executives and retail industry observers during the opening address of the one-day event, held in Schaumberg, Ill., in mid-April. “I quickly came around to see the most important thing we face right now is digital disruption. Let’s talk about digital because it’s coming like a freight train. You can’t avoid it.”

But Hartsig was quick to add that Walgreens is doing its part to stay ahead of the digital revolution, and it is not an easy process. The company, he said, has instituted a number of successful digital programs to capture the consumer’s attention online. “We’re pretty proud of the work that we’ve been doing. Through offerings such as personalized paperless coupons, free Ship to Store, and real-time store inventory, we’re making it easier for our customers to find value and shop on their terms. But let’s face it — there’s a lot more we need to do,” he said. “We’re not delivering at every corner that we want to be at. So we’re humble knowing that we have a lot to do and a lot more to learn.”

Yet, having said that, Hartsig was quick to sum up the growing power of the chain. He noted that Walgreens Boots Alliance now operates in 25 countries and employs around 390,000 workers. It also just purchased a 40% stake in the largest pharmacy operation in China. The company has more than 13,000 stores worldwide and 8,100 stores in the United States — and that’s not counting the 1,932 stores it purchased from Rite Aid, whose transfer was completed in late March.

“We’re within five miles of 76% of the domestic population,” he said. “We have more than 235,000 employees that serve around eight million people daily. We have one of the largest loyalty programs in the U.S., and the part that is interesting is that we are rich with data. And, we have a brand-new partner called IRI who is helping us sift through this data.”

Building consumer trust is another factor in the future of Walgreens, he said, especially when it comes to digital retailing. “Our mission is really clear,” Hartsig said. “Our brand purpose is to help people feel good, and it starts with the pharmacist. That’s the heritage of the white coat. But it is also with our 3,000 beauty consultants, who are helping our shoppers look and feel better about themselves. It’s also with our photo team, who not only produces pictures and makes frames, but they curate someone’s memories so they can help them feel good. And it ends with the cashier, who, when the customer walks out of the store, she is met with a smile because that makes them feel good. That’s something we can own. We need to own it and that’s what we’re doing.”

It is that combination of the traditional brick-and-mortar business and the growing digital business that has Hartsig and his colleagues so excited. “How do we use digital technology to create better displays in our stores?” he said. “We’re moving fast, and we know that we can do more as we build out differentiated health, as we build out additional beauty experiences, and as we look at immediate consumption at the front end. We know that digital will play a massive role.”

“I think this time calls for calm leadership. This is an opportunity for change, and we ask that our partners help us engage and further prepare for what’s to come.”