Dedication is key to lasting success for drug store

vbridges@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2013 

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    Sutton’s Drug Store’s 90th anniversary

    The drug store will offer dine-in customers 1923 prices, including 10-cent hot dogs, fries and sodas, Wednesday from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

  • 100 years or more

    These local businesses have been around for at least a century.

    •  Briggs Hardware, 1865

    •  Hamlin Drug, 1904

    •  Person Street Pharmacy, 1910

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— When customers walk into Sutton’s Drug Store, they’ll likely see owner John Woodard in a white coat at the pharmacy window answering phones, filling prescriptions and waving to those waiting for a seat in his diner.

Woodard, 69, said he loves his business, but the reason he is a mainstay traces back to advice he received when he bought the Franklin Street drug store in 1977.

Three businessmen who owned other shops on the street told Woodard that his presence in the store was key to capturing his fair share of the customer traffic that flows from UNC-Chapel Hill.

“When this store opens, you are here,” Woodard said they told him. “And you are here to close.”

The advice has paid off. On Wednesday, Sutton’s will celebrate its 90th anniversary.

That mark of a longtime business is unique, especially for Franklin Street, which has seen a number of stores and shops come and go over the years.

About half of all new establishments survive five years or more, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. About one-third survive 10 years or more.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24.6 percent of businesses that opened in 1994 remained in business the following 17 years.

Key elements to staying in business over the long haul include saving money to cover expenses and payroll during downturns in the revenue and the economy and market losses, said David Grant, president of Raleigh SCORE, a nonprofit organization that offers free counseling and low-cost education workshops to small businesses.

Also, Grant said, complacency and losing touch with customers – either in person or through social media can unravel a business.

Be aware of trends

Bill Warner, executive director of EntreDot, a Raleigh venture which helps entrepreneurs create, launch and operate businesses by offering professional mentoring and educational programs, said owners should stay aware of market trends that drive their business, be wary of what is changing and respond to those changes.

“Barring dramatic surprise, it really comes down to really understanding your market, and responding to it and making marketing and sales plans to go after the new opportunities and the changed opportunities,” Warner said.

Some common mistakes small-business owners make, Grant said, include bringing out new products that haven’t been tested by customers.

“You have to change with the times,” said George Davis, owner of the Durham garden center Stone Brothers & Byrd, which has been in business since 1914. “However, you don’t want to lose your focus.”

That focus for Stone Brothers & Byrd is agriculture.

“It’s always has been, and, for the most part, it always will be,” Davis, 66, said.

However, over the years, Stone Brothers, which Davis has owned since 1976, has shifted from supplying farmers to focusing on lawn and garden.

The transition includes adding services such as a small engine repair shop and an e-commerce site, which now brings in about 20 percent of the company’s revenue, Davis said. To stay relevant, Stone Brothers keeps up with farming research at N.C. State University and other agencies. The business sells its own proprietary line of grass seed blends, which N.C. State tests each August.

Stone Brothers eventually added a landscaping service after people turned to them for recommendations.

Sustainability also means that working 60 or more hours a week is part of his job, Davis said..

“There is an old phrase that I have quoted many times,” Davis said. “It’s pretty simple: Total dedication with no compromise.”

‘I was so green’

Sutton’s Drug Store was opened by the Sutton family in 1923, and sold to Elliott Brummitt in the 1960s. In 1977, Woodard bought the pharmacy from Brummitt.

“I was so green,” Woodard said.

Other established business owners on Franklin Street offered Woodard advice that included maximizing revenue during the fall and spring to survive the summer when students go home. They also told him he wasn’t going to be rich, but that he would make a nice living if he provided strong service.

“You are going to get your percentage as an independent businessman because there is that segment of the population that wants to have good service,” Woodard said.

When Woodard took over the store, about 40 percent of the revenue came from the pharmacy. The rest came from the soda fountain and store. Over the years, Sutton’s shifted its focus to breakfast and lunch as the pharmaceutical industry started to cater to larger chains. The pharmacy’s revenue is now only about 25 percent of its business, Woodard said.

“I didn’t have a problem with it,” Woodard said. “You have to go where the profit margin is the greatest.”

In 1981, Don Pinney, 48, who had worked at Sutton’s since his teens, started managing the shop’s diner. Pinney said his goal was to provide quality food in volume. He added more booths and updated the menu, including replacing frozen patties with fresh ones.

“Just subtle changes like that,” Pinney said. The traffic eventually increased from 200 people a day to 600. “And before we knew it, we had lines out the doors.”

The two have also added to the ambiance by hanging basketball jerseys from the ceiling and hundreds of pictures of customers on the wall.

“People love to see their picture on the wall,” said Pinney.

Sutton’s success also comes from its student-friendly pricing, a menu that has changed with customers’ eating habits. Also, customers’ opinions are sought when changes need to be made, Pinney said.

When their hot dog vendor added more beef to compensate for the spike in pork prices, Sutton’s sought a new product. They tested 40 different hot dogs with their customers until they found a winner, Pinney said.

“If you listen to your customers,” Pinney said, “They will direct you where you want to go.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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