September 10, 2013

10 Tips for Working with Chain Drug Stores

A chain drug store can be a boon to a historic downtown or neighborhood -- or a bust, if it doesn’t take into account the character of the surrounding area. Whether the chain demolishes existing historic buildings or adds a suburban-style store with a sea of parking, an insensitive approach can dramatically change the look and feel of a community.

However, chain drug stores don’t have to be the enemy. There are ways for preservationists and developers to work together to bring new retail options and contribute to a vibrant historic neighborhood. Here are 10 tips for working with chain drug stores in your community:

1. Get organized. As soon as you hear that a chain drugstore development is on its way, form a group to represent community interests. Your group will want to monitor demolition permits, building permits, and site plan applications. And you’ll want to learn local regulations, since knowing what is allowed will help you provide reasons to turn down an application or to require modifications.

2. Be positive. Focus your messaging around creating a project that is compatible with community character and enhances your town's quality of life. You will want to attract others who may be sitting on the fence, so being seen as “anti-development” is not likely to help.

3. Find out if any threatened buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. National Register listing or eligibility may influence public opinion. If any federal funding is involved, the project will be subject to review by the State Historic Preservation Office.

4. Meet with the chain store decision-makers. As early in the process as possible, organize a meeting with the regional-level leadership for the chain, along with the developer and architect for the project, political leaders, and local business representatives. Making preservation-friendly voices heard from the beginning may help get the best result.

5. Request design approvals. For projects that involve a newly built store, the best way to get a well-designed building is through design approval. If pushed, the chains and/or developer will usually negotiate on the building materials. This provides an opportunity to replace the chain’s “standard” options with something that more accurately represents the local area.

6. Ask for better windows. Changes to the design of the building can be difficult to negotiate, but some towns have obtained windows rather than blank walls. Chains prefer windows made of darkened glass, so that their product display racks can line the walls inside.

Tip: Some preservation organizations have had success with providing archival photographs and other attractive elements for exterior window displays.

7. Think about parking. It can be difficult to win concessions on parking lots. Chains often prefer wrap-around parking, but depending on local planning and zoning regulations, town boards can sometimes require that the drugstores build to the edge of the sidewalk with parking in the rear. Otherwise, try to negotiate for removal of at least one row of parking in front to bring the store closer to the street.

8. Don’t forget landscaping. A successful design should include some sort of landscape buffer between the parking lot and the sidewalk, usually small shrubs. Ask for shade trees, when appropriate, to help soften the architecture.

9. Move the drive-through. Drive-through windows are a common feature in chains' designs. They may consent to other design and site plan modifications if they can build a drive-through window. These are less obtrusive when built in the rear parking lots.

10. Look for a sign. An appropriately sized and colored sign, that is. Chain drugstore signs tend to be overly large, made of plastic, and brightly colored. Their design is best controlled by local sign ordinances, but try to negotiate anyway to minimize a jarring look. Be aware that the chains have demonstrated little flexibility on this point unless regulated.

Adapted from Better Models for Chain Drugstores, a National Trust publication by Anne Stillman.

Sarah Heffern headshot

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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