“It seems the only thing we don’t sell is furniture,” jokes Nolan Rodman, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based chain Rodman’s Discount Food & Drug. Indeed, the merchandise selection at the company’s two-story location in D.C.’s Friendship Heights section runs the gamut from pharmacy services, housewares and gourmet specialty items to produce, wine and beer.
Clearly, Rodman’s is not your typical drugstore. In fact, the Washington Post has described the 25,000-square-foot D.C. location as “the weirdest little drugstore in Washington.” And that designation is just fine with Nolan Rodman. “Our success is due to the loyalty of our customers and to our niche,” the third-generation retailer says. He describes the company’s niche as “offering those products you can’t find in a typical grocery store, such as items from Great Britain, South Africa or Italy. But at the same time, our customers are able to pick up their milk, eggs and cheese. And we stay very competitive on price.”
Despite the growth of national drugstore chains in the last few decades, Rodman’s has maintained its positioning as a neighborhood purveyor of prescription drugs and other merchandise for nearly 60 years. The first Rodman’s was opened on northwestern Wisconsin Avenue in 1955 by Nolan Rodman’s grandfather, Leonard, who was a pharmacist. The store burned down a few years later, and the business was relocated two blocks away to its current location. In the 1960s and ’70s Rodman’s expanded to about 10 stores in D.C., Maryland and Virginia via franchise agreements, which were eventually dissolved. The franchise owners “didn’t build the business,” explains current owner and CEO Roy Rodman, who is Nolan’s father. Leonard Rodman acquired one of the franchised units—a 24,000-square-foot location in Wheaton, Maryland—in the late ’60s, and the family added a third, 8,000-square-foot store in Kensington, Maryland, about 16 years ago. Today, only the D.C. location dispenses prescription drugs.
Roy Rodman joined the business in the mid-’70s—around the time the company expanded into wine and beer—and has focused on building its reputation for offering offbeat and discounted items, ranging from flip-flops to Danish mussels to even home appliances. The D.C. flagship, located in a neighborhood that mixes residential and commercial real estate, originally occupied just one story and then took over the lower level several years ago. “We got lucky with this space,” Nolan Rodman says. “As we grew, we took on more categories.”
The business—which employs about 160 workers at its three locations—continues to thrive. The company declines to share annual sales revenue, but Nolan Rodman says that sales are growing.
Wine And Beer Excel
Beverage alcohol is a significant category for Rodman’s. Roy Rodman reveals that wine and beer sales combined account for about 30 percent of the company’s total revenue. In fact, beverage alcohol sales have been so promising for the retailer that it’s carved out additional selling space in the D.C. store in recent years to accommodate more product.
Wine sales—which Nolan Rodman says run into the “millions of dollars”—outpace beer sales by roughly three to one. At the D.C. store, the wine department encompasses one full aisle on the main level, plus two cut-out sections—one devoted to California offerings and one for popular and boxed formats, such as Barefoot ($8.99 a 1.5-liter bottle) and Black Box ($14.99 a 3-liter box). Rodman’s wine section features few large displays; rather, wine is merchandised via racks and case stackings. Wine is organized by country and then by region, with the French wines divided into sections like Loire Valley, Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Rodman’s offers more than 2,300 wines, generally priced from $4.99 a 750-ml. bottle of Robert Mondavi Woodbridge up to about $800 for a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Julio Porcell, a 40-year wine industry veteran who joined Rodman’s a decade ago, serves as wine manager at the D.C. store and stocks wines from about 15 different countries including Bulgaria and Uruguay. Nolan Rodman notes that because the store attracts diplomats and other foreign-born customers, “we try to be worldly when it comes to our wine selection.”
While the impressive wine selection at Rodman’s aims to wow first-time shoppers, the chain’s reputation for reasonable prices and wine values brings them back. “We often have some of the best prices on wine in the city,” Nolan Rodman says, noting that the store often seeks good deals with distributors looking to move inventory. Porcell tastes as many as 20 wines a day in an effort to discover quality offerings that provide value for his customers.
Wines priced between $10 and $14 a bottle tend to sell well at Rodman’s, while top labels include Sonoma’s Clos du Bois ($12.99 a 750-ml. bottle) and Healdsburg’s Simi ($14.99). Among imports, wines from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, generally priced between $14 and $18 a bottle, are popular with the store’s European customers. Porcell also sees strong trends among wines from Spain and South Africa, as well as Malbecs from Argentina—all priced between $10 and $25 a bottle.
Nolan Rodman, meanwhile, oversees the beer category at the D.C. store. Beer is also organized by country and region, although the vast majority of offerings are domestic craft brews. Large-format bottles like Goose Island Madame Rose ($23.99 a 765-ml. bottle) and Ommegang Three Philosophers ($9.99 a 750-ml. bottle) are merchandised in a special section. In addition to warm shelves, chilled beer is available via nine cooler doors.
The D.C. store offers about 300 beers, priced from $2.49 a 32-ounce bottle of Corona Extra to $34.99 a 750-ml. bottle of Trignac Kasteel Tripel. Nolan Rodman—who started out pushing carts at the family business when he was 12 years old—says the store stocks mainstream domestic brews like Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite, but he doesn’t give them a huge amount of space. “There’s more money to be made off crafts,” he adds, estimating that 90 percent of the store’s beer sales come from craft brews. Top-selling beers at Rodman’s include Stella Artois ($8.99 a six-pack of bottles) and Bell’s Two Hearted ale ($11.99).
Courting The Customer
“Pharmacy isn’t what it once was, thanks to third-party payments and shrinking margins,” Roy Rodman says, also citing national chains like Walgreen’s and CVS. His company’s push into other categories was the right one, as pharmacy customers enjoy the convenience. “Our customers appreciate a family-owned business and are happy to see a non-chain store that’s succeeding,” he adds.
Indeed, Nolan Rodman describes the store’s typical patron as a “60- to 70-year-old woman who’s been shopping here for years” and visits several times a week. Customers are generally well-educated, speak more than one language and enjoy cooking, he adds. The store also attracts men in their mid-20s or older who seek craft beer offerings.
Excellent customer service has been pivotal to the business’s success, particularly in the wine department. “We know our customers can shop anywhere, so we take good care of them,” Porcell says, noting that many of the wine patrons “don’t come in with a preconceived notion of what they’re going to buy. They ask for guidance.” He adds that the store’s eight-member wine team—with combined sales experience of 200 years—is happy to make recommendations.
Rodman’s employs a range of strategies to get the word out to consumers about its wine, beer and other assorted merchandise. Nolan Rodman says the store is one of the Washington Post’s longest-running advertisers, with a weekly ad touting store specials that include wine and beer items. In addition to holiday circulars and weekly e-newsletters, Rodman’s relies on digital platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and the store’s website, Rodmans.com. Complimentary wine and beer samplings are offered each Saturday at the D.C. store. Rodman’s is also a generous supporter of local charitable organizations and schools.
Last year, Rodman’s launched wine and beer sales on its website. While Nolan Rodman says the move has been a “big job for a small company,” he sees nothing but opportunity for online sales going forward. Internet revenue only amounted to about $100,000 in 2013, but he projects the figure will double this year. E-commerce is expected to become a big focus for Rodman’s over the next few years, with other merchandise to be added to the site.
Once the online business is fully established, Rodman’s may open a fourth store. With the pharmacy category expected to remain a challenge, Roy Rodman says products like wine and beer will be key to the company’s future success. “We’ll continue to embrace wine and beer,” he says. “It’s a wonderful category.”