In the face of competition from big national chains, owner Mary Deets reinvented her store and wrote the prescription for its long-term success
BBJ photo/MARK MALIJAN
|FUN AND GAMES: Owner Mary Deets said Fountain Drug has been able to stay ahead of the competition with big chains by offering specialized departments such as its toys and kitchenwares section downstairs.|
Fountain Drug and Galleria is often touted by local business experts as a shining example of a small, independent, locally owned store that has adjusted to increasing competition from large chain stores with great success.
The drug store’s squat, brick building has been a beacon of reliability for Bellingham customers on Meridian Street since 1906. Although it began at the turn of the century as a traditional drug store stocked with pharmaceuticals and home remedies, owner Mary Deets has ensured its survival into the 21st century by transforming the store into a destination for toys, home merchandise, jewelry, and gifts, along with prescriptions.
First opened by Robert H. Berry in 1906, the store cycled through seven more owners before Mary Deets’ father-in-law, Howard Deets — a Bellingham pharmacist — bought the store in 1943.
When Deets purchased the business, it was located down the street from its current location. In the mid-1950s he built its current incarnation at 2416 Meridian St.
The store offered traditional drugstore sundries such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, cards and hardware, but it also offered a few toys and a cake-decorating department. It also had one of the city’s first parking lots.
“He was sort of a visionary, in a way, because he did the parking lot in times when there weren’t a lot of cars,” Mary said. “The whole neighborhood used it, like a community parking lot.”
Mary, who grew up in Bellingham in the Lettered Streets neighborhood, remembered shopping at Fountain as a little girl with her family for fabric and sewing accoutrements.
In her unassuming office, Mary, a no-nonsense woman with a hearty, warm laugh, discussed the history and success of the store with detailed insight, occasionally interspersed by the chug and clink of an old-fashioned register printing receipts up front.
“In those days drug stores were more like general stores,” she said. “Money was harder to come by then, it was a different culture. The products were lower priced and were aimed at working people.”
Mary got a job as a sales clerk at the store when she was a 16-year-old high-school student, and that is where she met Allyn Deets, her future husband, after he returned from a year of college at the University of Washington. The couple married and moved around to attend Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin. Mary received a master’s degree in Latin American studies and Allyn got his Ph.D. in Psychology.
Allyn landed a teaching job at the University of Pittsburgh where he was involved in primate research.
“We thought we were on the road to academia,” she recalled.
But then funding for primate research began to dissolve in the ‘70s at the same time that Howard was ready to retire from the pharmacy business back home. The couple decided to move back to Bellingham and take over the store in 1975.
At the time, Bellingham boasted about 10 to 15 independent drug stores, Mary said. The large chain stores were just starting to arrive on the scene, and then the grocery stores followed soon after by adding pharmacies in the mid-‘80s.
The competition was mounting. When developers built Bellis Fair mall in 1988, Mary knew times were changing.
“That was the beginning of all of the big-box stores,” she said. “It became clear to us that we didn’t want to compete with them by providing the same merchandise they were providing. We just couldn’t see how one more of those (stores) would be viable. And, of course, we didn’t have the deep pockets to compete head-to-head with the same kind of merchandise. It was eye opening at that point.”
Mary tried selling “soda, chips and lawn chairs in the summer time, things like that,” in the ‘80s, but the tactic wasn’t successful.
“We would have stacks of this stuff left over, because we just couldn’t do it well enough to work better for us than it did for the chains,” she said. “At that point we said, ‘This isn’t the right thing for us. If we’re going to survive, we need to be different.’”
Changing the merchandise
For step one of the business redesign, Mary — who ran most of the operations at the store while Allyn looked after his family’s cattle ranch in the county — got rid of the downstairs hardware department in the face of stiff competition from chain hardware stores such as Home Depot and Home Base.
Then, with the remaining space, she expanded the toy section.
Because of Allyn’s interest in childhood psychology and development, the couple changed the focus of the toy department when they first bought the store, from inexpensive, drugstore-quality toys to ones that were better quality and unique, while still remaining affordable. The department gradually grew from there.
“That seems to be a choice our customers approve of,” she said. “Every parent wants the best for their child, to have the developmental tools they need to get the best start in life, and it doesn’t matter what economic class they are in … we have stuff kids can buy with their allowances.”
In the last five years, especially, toys have been an “engine that has demanded our attention and our space and focus and time,” she said.
As customers descend the stairs to Fountain’s basement, they are greeted with a kaleidoscope of colorful toys and games. Children play with stuffed animals and wooden train sets while their moms chat amid the garlic crushers and rolling pins in the nearby kitchenware section.
“It has been successful. There seems to be a demand, and it seems to be growing,” she said of the toy section. “It’s been a lesson to us for other areas.”
For example, the store’s kitchen merchandise has skyrocketed in popularity. Mary said she recognized a growing trend in cooking, with more TV shows and magazines dedicated to its art, as well as the increased number of men who like to cook — and who are attracted to the gadgetry involved in cooking.
“Our kitchen area has been bustling,” she said.
She said because of the success of both the toy and kitchen departments, she is working to expand both.
“I’m a firm believer that if something works, then it deserves more time and attention and space, and the things that don’t work you need to look long and hard, and see if they don’t work because you’re doing the wrong things, or they don’t work because you’re in the wrong time and place for them. And some things you just have to say, ‘We can’t do this,’” she said. “Change is hard. It’s hard to take something you’ve done for a long time and say ‘Gosh, I don’t think this can go anywhere.’”
For that reason, Mary has considerably downsized the store’s once-popular cake decorating department that used to feature cake pans shaped like cowboy boots and boats.
She has also reevaluated the store’s gift selection, which once sold collectibles and trinkets, and now focuses on gifts that are useful, such as candles, jewelry and high-end cosmetics, instead of cluttering.
The pharmacy area, which Howard Deets considered “the heart of the store,” has also slimmed down a bit. Competition between pharmacies is tough, Mary said, because the profit margin is so low.
Fountain has tried to combat the competition by offering prescription delivery services, but she said people are prone to patronizing grocery store pharmacies for the convenience of dropping their prescription off and picking it up at the end of their shopping.
“Our pharmacy business is less than it was 15 years ago,” she said.
In addition to changing the merchandise, Mary credits a few of Fountain’s other strengths in its ability to compete with the chains. A focus on customer service is one of those attributes.
“We’re all listening to our customers,” she said. Her employees routinely pass on customer requests for merchandise, which she takes into account.
“People feel empowered when they have suggested change and it actually happens,” she said. “A lot of our customers feel like this is their place, and I sense that a lot downstairs. People come and they see their friends. Moms come and kids play with the trains and they’ll talk. It’s a very sociable place. Or even if they don’t know each other they’ll say, ‘Have you tried this toy? My 3-year old loves this.’ They sell toys for us.” This sense of community is something customers don’t get from the chains, she said.
Nancy Bussard, 76, has been a Fountain customer for 30 years and said she shops there at least once a week for prescriptions and gifts. She said she appreciates the merchandise as well as the customer service, including the store’s free gift wrapping.
“I like the atmosphere, the clerks are all friendly, it’s just such delightful service,” she said. “It’s my store.”
Bussard said she has noticed the store change from tools and hardware to higher-end gifts in the last 30 years, and she said she hopes Fountain will continue thriving.
“There have been a lot of local stores I’ve shopped in that have closed. I certainly don’t want to think about (Fountain) closing,” she said.
And while the store is often populated mostly by women, male customers feel comfortable shopping there, too, because Fountain is not a “frou frou women’s shop,” Mary said.
The store has also done some cable advertising, which has been good for developing and branding an identity.
Being financially conservative has also contributed to the store’s success.
“There is a tendency when you’re successful to overextend yourself financially. We have never done that. We have probably been more conservative then we need to be,” she said. At the same time, Mary said she is cognizant of pricing merchandise so that it is affordable.
She also mentioned treating her 20 employees well as a key to the store’s longevity. All of her employees who work 32 or more hours a week receive health benefits, and she imparts them with responsibilities that give them a sense of ownership in the business, such as inventorying, ordering and displaying.
“We’re giving employees the power to be part of the success and to be successful themselves,” Mary said.
Because of this, her employees stick around for a long time. The college students tend to stay throughout their college careers. Three of her employees have worked there more than 10 years, and three others have worked there longer than five.
The future of Fountain Drug relies on these assets and Mary’s ability to capitalize on what she already does well.
“The key is to figure out what you can do, and do it well, and that (the chain stores) probably can’t do the same things that you can do well,” she said. “And then work at it as hard as you can.”