Ever since October 2020, when Bartell Drugs announced it was selling itself to the Rite Aid chain, Bartell officials have assured customers the beloved 130-year-old Seattle institution wouldn’t lose its quirky Pacific Northwest soul.
“Rite Aid is completely committed to keeping Bartell’s Bartell’s,” said Ken Mahoney, who has been overseeing the two companies’ integration, in an interview last year.
But some customers say Bartell has yet to deliver.
The good news: The prescription backlogs that sent many customers fleeing to rival chains early in the merger are much reduced, according to company officials and, anecdotally, to customers.
Other problems have lingered. Some locations are still short on inventory. Staffing continues to be such a problem that, in recent weeks, several pharmacies or even entire stores opened late or closed early for want of workers, according to customers, several store managers and signs taped to the front doors.
For some longtime Bartell costumers, those problems may undercut what have been Bartell’s biggest selling points — customer service and a store experience that went beyond what was on your shopping list.
“It used to be I would stop in there all the time, whether I needed something or not, just to look around and be, like, ‘Oh, maybe I do need that,’” said Jen Koogler, who frequents the Bartell in Uptown. But lately, Koogler said, “it’s just become another place to go to get something.”
Some customer complaints reflect the challenges of merging two distinct companies with very different business systems, Mahoney says.
Bartell’s system for ordering its roughly 180 locally made products — from Almond Roca by Tacoma-based Brown & Haley to Chukar Cherries of Prosser — or specialty items such as French-made Bonne Maman preserves or Nonni’s Biscotti from Italy, “was incredibly complex” and challenging to blend with the Rite Aid system, Mahoney said. Some products temporarily dropped from the inventory.
Many of those inventory problems have been resolved, Mahoney insists, adding that most remaining out-of-stocks arise from the same supply chain problems hobbling most retailers.
But that distinction is lost on some customers, who have adjusted to the Rite Aid era by shopping elsewhere.
“I could give you a list of 25 products that I now get from Amazon rather than Bartell, due to price, quality and/or availability,” said Randy Bowles, a Seattle resident who has frequented Bartell since 1974, in an email. “It used to be a weekly ritual to go to Bartell and fill up a basket. No more.”
“For nearly three weeks, they were ‘sold out’ of a very basic product, hydrogen peroxide,” added Neal Pattison, who shops Bartell locations in the Seattle neighborhoods of Magnolia and Ballard. But “two blocks down the street, CVS had it,” he said.
Staffing may be Bartell’s bigger challenge.
Like many retailers, Bartell has struggled to find and keep enough employees. Pay is one factor: “I can go down the street and QFC is paying $21.50 to start and we’re still paying $18,” groused a manager at large Seattle Bartell who asked not to be named to protect her job.
Mahoney said the Rite Aid acquisition allowed Bartell to raise wages, though he acknowledged that pay still isn’t competitive across all roles, “and in the areas that we’re not, we continue to look at it.”
But some employees said Bartell also cut staff during the integration process, though it has since begun adding staff back.
They say the cuts were meant to help defray the $95 million acquisition price — but also that, before the sale, some Bartell locations were “over-labored,” as one put it. While extra employees could translate into better customer service, the extra labor expense may also have contributed to Bartell’s financial struggles, the employees said.
Mahoney acknowledged that Bartell “adjusted labor this year,” and allowed that “maybe it could have been stepped down a little bit differently.” He declined to say how Bartell’s current retail staff compared to its presale staff, or how staffing at Bartell locations compares with staffing at Seattle-area Rite Aid stores of similar revenue. (Retailers often base a location’s labor expense on its sales.) “But we’re still running at what I would call a very healthy percentage of sales,” he said.
Mahoney is confident Bartell will resolve any lingering challenges in staffing or inventory — and thinks the holidays should provide a pretty good indicator of “whether we’re there or maybe we’ve got a little more time.”
Some longtime customers worry how many Bartell employees can last that long, given that problems such as short staffing can have a snowballing effect on employee morale, which can lead to even more turnover.
“They look so sad when you ask them questions,” said Pattison.