Tamblyn’s Ingenious Prescription for Success

• Swallow up the other drug chains • Use a feather duster twice a day • Act like a supermarket • Hire Kate Aitken Sounds crazy? Well, that’s how Gordon Tamblyn’s gaslit store was turned into the biggest drugstore chain in the country

TRENT FRAYNE April 16 1955

Tamblyn’s Ingenious Prescription for Success

• Swallow up the other drug chains • Use a feather duster twice a day • Act like a supermarket • Hire Kate Aitken Sounds crazy? Well, that’s how Gordon Tamblyn’s gaslit store was turned into the biggest drugstore chain in the country

TRENT FRAYNE April 16 1955

Tamblyn’s Ingenious Prescription for Success

• Swallow up the other drug chains • Use a feather duster twice a day • Act like a supermarket • Hire Kate Aitken Sounds crazy? Well, that’s how Gordon Tamblyn’s gaslit store was turned into the biggest drugstore chain in the country


A letter to her parents in Manchester during the war, a little English visitor to Toronto once tried to describe her first impressions of Canada. “There’s lots of food and the houses are all nice and warm,” she wrote, “but Canadians have odd names for things. The trams are called streetcars, the lifts are called elevators, and the chemist shops are called tamblyns!”

True or not, this is the kind of story that gets a wide circulation around the five-story head-office building of G. Tamblyn Limited on Toronto’s Jarvis Street. Few people in Ontario would doubt it because 103 of Tamblyn’s 134 drugstores are located there, 64 in Toronto alone. And urban Canadians from Quebec City to Edmonton are coming more and more to accept it as Tamblyn’s sprawls west across the prairies and east into Quebec.

How is it that Tamblyn’s has become so well known that the name could be mistaken for part of the language? How is it that in two generations a single gaslit store founded in 1904 in the shade of a Toronto apple orchard could grow into the largest drug chain in the country and one of the three or four largest in the world?

Tamblyn’s, mixing almost a million prescriptions a year for the fourteen million people it serves, could also write a prescription for success. Roughly, the formula might read like this: First, buy up all the other drug chains; second, insist on feather-duster cleanliness; third, stop acting like a drugstore and start acting like a supermarket, and fourth, hire Kate Aitken.

As a result of this mixture Tamblyn’s

is busting out all over. In most of the w new suburbs that sprout on Canada’s scattered horizons like springtime dandelions, a pastel-green chromium-trimmed Tamblyn drugstore invariably emerges next door to the hardware, or just down the block.

The company has already swallowed two drug chains and portents suggest it’s on the verge of taking over another. Last November when the company bought out the Louis K. Liggett chain, it added thirty Liggett’s drugstores in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Quebec. Before that Tamblyn’s had already got a foothold in the foothills with ten stores in Alberta, and between times—in November of 1953—it bought up the eight stores operated by the Owl Drug Company. There have been persistent reports that the next Tamblyn stop will be British Columbia where the George Cunningham chain operates thirty-six stores, but Tamblyn’s reserved and solemn president, Harold G. Browne, declines to elaborate on them.

Last year, before the business of the Liggett stores was counted in, Tamblyn’s did a gross turnover of ten and a half million dollars—exactly fifteen hundred times the size of the trade that founder Gordon Tamblyn did fifty years earlier when the year’s business was seven thousand dollars. A lot of that seven thousand came from the sale of ice cream and pop that Tamblyn served on tables in an apple orchard near his store at the corner of Queen Street East and Lee Avenue in Toronto.

It was Gordon Tamblyn who mixed up the original Tamblyn formula for success. During his twenty-nine years as boss he was almost fanatical about cleanliness in his stores. His managers never knew when their stem-faced immaculate employer would walk briskly into a store wearing a pair of spotless doeskin gloves. He’d utter no greeting, but would stride to an obscure corner of the store, reach up to a top shelf and run his gloved hand along it. If a

smudge of dust showed he’d give the manager a cold upbraiding and stomp out.

Tamblyn’s fetish for cleanliness came from his mother who kept an utterly spotless eight-room house. Young Gordon grew up in an atmosphere of extreme meticulousness and he never forgot it.

Nor did he ever forget that the customers were always right. He constantly reminded his managers of it, emphasizing that customers were to be treated as guests in a spotless living room. Once, in Hamilton, Tamblyn was silently inspecting a counter layout, standing immobile, his hands behind his back. A customer entered and asked for a lubricant. The manager, made nervous by Tamblyn’s stoic presence, fumbled with some jars, spilled one and watched horrified as the liquid ran toward the customer’s feet.

“It was not necessary,” observed Gordon Tamblyn, “to serve the lady that fast.”

The Stores Are Antiseptic

A good deal of this fastidiousness still remains. The black-topped, uniformly shaped bottles and jars standing in long correct rows at the back of the modern dispensaries (and also in those that are less uniform and somewhat cluttered in the smaller older stores) are each religiously feather-dusted twice a day. A maintenance crew from the head office is on the move the year round repainting and redecorating each store once a year. No granule of dust is left even at the head office, far from the eyes of customers. Each day at one o’clock when the company’s six top executives emerge from their secondfloor offices to go upstairs to the cafeteria for lunch, a three-man crew, on a signal from the head cleaning man, Len Gosling, darts into the vacated offices with vacuum cleaners under their arms and dusters dangling from their hip pockets. Office girls in the large central typing pool watch fascinated as the skinny, quick-moving Gosling pokes a gaunt face around a corner to stare down the long room toward the executive offices. When the president, Harold Browne, appears and is joined by the others, Gosling scurries toward the offices in what the girls now call “the one-o’clock jump.” At night the offices are given a second and more thorough cleaning, and no girl is permitted to leave until she has cleared her desk of all papers and other office bric-a-brac.

Downtown stores push cosmetics; out in the suburbs they aim at the baby trade

in the antiseptic stores, the customer is still king, whether he’s Viscount Alexander or a woman who phones in for a pound of hamburger. Alexander, the former Governor-General, did his own shopping at Tamblyn’s in Ottawa, and never took advantage of the store’s delivery service. Frequently he asked for the English magazine Lilliput, but it was not available. Once he entered the store, bought some tooth paste and shaving cream, and went to the cashier’s counter to pay for them. A new clerk, who bad been watching him with a puzzled frown, made the change for the purchases.

“Pardon me,” the clerk said, “haven’t 1 seen you someplace before?”

“It’s possible,” answered the Governor-General with a smile, “I’m the man who’s been asking for Lilliput.” He took bis change and strolled out.

Tamblyn’s solved the problem of how to satisfy customer Alexander by writing to the Lilliput publishers in England and taking a subscription to the magazine.

With the woman who phones for hamburger the method is just as direct. Hamburger is frequently on the drug list phoned in by a steady customer of Les Lister, manager of Tamblyn’s Kingsway store on the western outskirts of Toronto. Meat is hardly a Tamblyn staple but Lister’s store is half a block from a butcher shop and it’s all part of the service when his delivery boy picks up the meat en route with her drug order.

“It’s good business,” says Lister. “To justify delivery of her hamburger she buys more things from me than she actually needs at the moment.”

By adopting the supermarket psychology Tamblyn’s is now able to sell its customers items that some of them never expected to buy. On the knowledge that seven out of ten grocery shoppers buy meat, supermarkets place their meat departments at the back so the shopper will pass attractive counters and shelves of olives, fancy biscuits, frozen oyster stew and even tiny jars of caviar on the way to a pot roast. It’s a strong woman who can resist the impulse to add a delicacy or two to

her shopping list. Some drugstores have discovered that although the markup, or profit, on cigarettes is the lowest in the store—a mere ten percent —cigarettes are still their fastestselling item, with a complete stock turnover fifty-two times a year on the average. Accordingly the tobacco counter, once placed near the door for customer convenience, is now farther back so the customer on his two-way trip to his favorite counter will go by things that he may buy on impulseseasonal products such as sun-tan lotion, or sales specials like two tubes of tootli paste for the price of one. When Tamblyn’s features items like these it places them on a counter near the door where the customer practically falls over them.

Drugstores were once narrow holesin-the-wall with a thin alley leading to the dispensary. The walls from door to rear were lined with high glassed-in counters. Gordon Tamblyn’s first store was like that; on the windows in white letters were the words, G. Tamblyn, Cut-Rate Drugs. But now, to promote impulse buying, Tamblyn’s counters have become lower and wider. Virtually all of the ten thousand to twelve thousand items for sale are displayed on low tables or islands in the centre of the stores.

Tamblyn’s knows that people spend more time looking down than looking up; as a result, displays higher than eye level could be missed. Also, the low centre-floor islands permit the staff to keep an eye on the whole store and thus discourage shoplifting, a practice that could amount to a serious loss for drugstores whose products are mostly just pocket-size.

Turnover Tells the Tale

Tamblyn’s, with both urban and suburban stores, features stock to suit its location. For example, the store at Adelaide and Yonge in downtown Toronto carries a high percentage of cosmetics for busy shopgirls and stenographers shopping on lunch hours, and virtually no baby foods or toilet supplies. These items get feature displays in the suburbs where housewives can’t miss them. A woman dropping in for a package of headache tablets also finds strained squash for her baby. Almost nothing is overlooked; the toilet tissue in stores serving well-to-do residential districts comes in four colors. The crowded tenement-area store sells only white.

Outside factors also influence Tamblyn sales: when one Toronto market closed and the property was turned into a site for apartment houses, the nearest Tamblyn store dropped from first to seventh place within the organization for sales of veterinary supplies. Farmers outside the city had been in the habit of getting prescriptions for ailing animals filled at Tamblyn’s when they brought produce to the market to sell.

Beating the “magic fifty cents” makes the dispensary the store’s gold mine

Tamblyn’s, with its enormous turnover, has an edge over small independent stores when it comes to profit because it can buy directly from the manufacturer. In such cases the profit on nationally advertised brands averages about one third of the selling price of the product. A small druggist with a small turnover must buy from a wholesaler. If he tries to sell at Tamblyn’s price his profit is about one quarter of the retail price. Tamblyn’s has another advantage, even over the large independent stores. By dangling the inducement of prominent displays in all Tamblyn’s stores simultaneously, it can often get products cheaper.

The point at which druggists stop being retailers and start being professional men is of course the dispensary. This is one reason that druggists such as Tamblyn’s place a special emphasis on prescriptions. Another reason is that it pays them well. In the last ten years the prescription business, spurred by the so-called wonder drugs (sulphas, antibiotics and hormones), has more than tripled. According to the Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal’s twelfth annual survey, about sixteen percent of this country’s pharmacy sales for 1953—$321,386,240—was in prescriptions.

Few drugstore items are more profitable. The average four-ounce prescription costs the customer $1.50. The ingredients cost the druggist between fifty and sixty cents. But the customer is also buying the knowledge of a skilled pharmacist of course; one mis-

take in dispensing some drugs could do irreparable harm.

The wonder drugs cause the pharmacist less concern because they are delivered, bottled and ready to use, by the manufacturer. They carry a profit that is known in the drug trade as “the magic fifty cents’’ (although it’s sometimes only thirty-five). When a doctor gives a patient a prescription calling for, say, penicillin tablets, the patient passes it along to a druggist who takes the tablets from the manufacturer’s bottle, transfers them to a vial of his own, puts the doctor’s orders on a label and, for that much effort, adds fifty cents to the cost of the tablets. Tamblyn’s, by buying in enormous quantities, may make an even larger profit—but it won’t tell.

Kate Cleaned Out the China

The final item in the Tamblyn’s prescription for success is a difficult one for the independent pharmacist to include, for it involves a peripatetic grandmother of sixty-two named Kate Aitken whose name is just about synonymous with Tamblyn’s. Mrs. A., as she’s called by friends, acquaintances and even her daughter, has been sponsored in a daily radio broadcast by Tamblyn’s since 1939. Quite possibly the best-known woman in Canada, Mrs. A. is often called Mrs. Tamblyn by Ontario housewives who have heard her enthuse over the firm and its products while broadcasting from Whitehorse (Alaska), Bethlehem (Jordan) or Port of Spain (Trinidad).

To spread the word outside Ontario, Tamblyn’s now has a new series by Mrs. A. on private radio stations in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg, where people already knew her through twice-a-day programs she had broadcast for another sponsor.

Tamblyn executives have no doubt that she does a terrific job of selling Tamblyn’s. In a recent broadcast she spoke glowingly of a brand of china being featured at the store at the comer of Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. Two days later an executive stepped smilingly into her cluttered, book-lined office on the second floor of Tamblyn’s head office.

“Well, Mrs. A.,” he grinned, “you’ve cleaned us out of English china.”

Kate Aitken is the sister of Walter Scott, who was president of Tamblyn’s at the time of his death in 1943. (He was electrocuted while adjusting a floodlight on his farm west of Toronto.) Her association with Tamblyn’s, however, has stronger roots than the fact her brother was once president, or that the firm is one of her sponsors. Her family, and that of the founder, Gordon Tamblyn, grew up together in the little village of Beeton, north of Toronto. All the Scotts were delivered by Gordon Tamblyn’s father, Dr. James Tamblyn. Kate’s two older brothers, Bruce and Walter Scott, were Gordon’s playmates, and Gordon and Bruce moved to Toronto to attend Parkdale Collegiate together. Later they both graduated from the Ontario College of Pharmacy.

Under the Apple Tree

After he graduated as a pharmacist Gordon Tamblyn apprenticed for three years in a drugstore at Whitby, twenty miles east of Toronto, and then clerked for a year at the Powell Drug Store at King and Yonge in Toronto. He saved four hundred dollars and rented a building on the city’s eastern outskirts in 1904 to start his first store.

While he worked from morning until night dispensing, decorating, merchandising and delivering, a neighborhood youngster brought his meals. The boy, now Dr. L. C. Edmonds of Toronto, recalls there were cottages along the shore on nearby Lake Ontario and that Gordon catered to the occupants by serving ice cream and soft drinks, literally in the shade of an old apple tree. He was ambitious, Edmonds recalls; when a drugstore farther down Queen Street started cutting rates, Tamblyn did too, and his methods attracted business.

Tamblyn once cut the price of Baby’s Own Soap from ten cents to five cents. When his rival matched him he cut the price to one cent, absorbing a heavy loss on that product, but more than making up for it by the sales of other products to customers who flocked to buy the one-cent soap.

But it was tough going. He started a slogan, Tamblyn’s Saves You Money. He began buying materials from wholesale drug houses and packaging products under the Tamblyn label. Buying in large lots, he was able to cut the prices and still make a small profit.

His widow, who is still living in Toronto, once related how slowly business developed. “My husband’s records for January of 1906, two years after he’d gone into business, show that on Jan. 5 the store took in $2.90,” she recalled. “The next day, it was $4.10, of which he had to pay out $3.85 for a delivery from the wholesaler. On Jan. 8 he took in $8.35 and had to pay a clerk $12 in wages.”

But by 1910 he was ready to expand and bought out a drugstore owned by Dr. Charles Worthington, who planned to retire. Worthington stayed on after Tamblyn took over, cleaning up his affairs, and was astonished by the volume of business Tamblyn’s merchandising and price cutting attracted. In one week of featuring Horlick’s mailed milk the store sold more than Worthington had been able to move in a year. He was so impressed that when he moved to Vancouver, where he’d planned to retire, he opened a drug chain of his own. It had swelled to eighteen stores when he sold it to George Cunningham, who built it into the present thirty-six-store Cunningham chain on the west coast.


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Tamblyn had built his organization to sixty stores by 1933, driving himself constantly. As Tamblyn’s grew he abandoned price cutting, which he had always disliked, and depended thereafter on quality, service and cleanliness. In 1930 he introduced a lunch counter in a store at Yonge and Hay ter in Toronto. He was lunching there during one of his periodic prowls through his stores when he noticed a cockroach skitiering across the counter. He went straight to his office, his sandwich untouched, and dictated a memo closing the lunch counter and decreeing that Tamblyn drugstores would never again harbor food. They never did until Tamblyn’s bought the Liggett chain last November, inheriting thirty lunch counters. Some of them were immediately shut down; others, which were showing a good profit, particularly in western Canada, will be continued, says President Harold Browne.

“It’s not the food that offends,” he states. “It’s the smell of food. We’re working on improved ventilation systems, installing extra fans and deodorizers to correct the problem.”

However, Gordon Tamblyn could not solve the Depression of the early Thirties. Worried by loss of business, he tried to counter the dropping line on the sales graph with increased advertising, more intensive merchandising and special sales. They did no good; the line kept dropping.

One morning Browne, then a supervisor, was studying the daily sales graph when Tamblyn walked past.

“Do you look at that chart every morning, Harold?” he asked.

“Yes, I do, sir,” Browne replied.

Tamblyn sighed heavily.

“These days,” he said forlornly, “I look at it only once a month.”

Browne believes worry over business contributed to Gordon Tamblyn’s death in 1933. “He was such an intense, driving man,” Browne says. “He took up golf to try to relax but he played golf the same way he ran his business. If he muffed a shot, he brooded about it through the rest of the round.” He was stricken with a heart attack during a game of golf at the Rosedale club in Toronto when he was fifty-five and died the same evening.

Since Gordon Tamblyn’s death, the company has more than doubled its size (from 60 stores to 134) and today has seven hundred employees. Some independent druggists claim its newly graduated pharmacists are underpaid at seventy-five dollars a week, pointing out that most independents pay eightyfive and some as high as a hundred. Browne, however, feels a young druggist does better with Tamblyn’s because of the company’s fringe benefits.

Even critical independent druggists agree that Tamblyn’s cleanliness and general appearance in pastel shades of green and wide expanses of glass and chrome set a lofty standard for all drugstores. “We’ve just got to stay bright and clean,” says Stan Deller, an independent store owner in the Toronto suburb of Weston who learned his business as a Tamblyn store manager and who knows that the Tamblyn formula for success really works. ★