By  on February 18, 1994

CHICAGO -- F&M Distributors has the competitive pricing strategy to be expected from a deep-discount drug chain.

But the Warren, Mich.-based company also claims to beat its competitors by employing a wide assortment of mass market merchandise, from color cosmetics to bath and body products.

The chain also tries to differentiate itself in the beauty arena by borrowing such ideas from department stores as a special-order service for customers and events such as in-store "Beauty Days."

According to Pat Gardocki, merchandise director, F&M's competition is drawn equally from other deep discounters, such as PharMor and Drug Emporium, and mass merchants such as Wal-Mart and Kmart.

The store's target customer is the woman who supplies the home, she said. The chain therefore carries domestic staples as well as the usual drugstore products. The layout of the stores, which average 36,000 square feet, is more reminiscent of a supermarket than a local drugstore.

Merchandise, from pretzels to Plenitude from L'Oreal, is shelved along long aisles, with rows of checkout counters at the front of the store. Floor space is punctuated by platforms bearing teetering piles of, say, Calgon or humidifiers on special offer.

As in many discount stores, aisles are peppered with handwritten signs proclaiming "Savings of up to 46 percent," but F&M doesn't make any lowest-price-anywhere claims.

"We say people who shop in the store on an every-day basis will save money," Gardocki said. "We operate as a category killer of health and beauty, cosmetics and house supplies."

F&M, which has 120 stores in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., mainly in suburban strip malls and plazas, had sales of $535 million through the first nine months of 1993. Bath and body accounts for about 3 percent, or $16 million, with makeup, fragrance and skin care making up another 12 percent of business, or $64 million, Gardocki said.

In bath and body, the merchandise ranges from budget lines, such as Calgon and Vaseline Intensive Care, up to pricier collections like Cosmil and Vitabath. The stores are known for carrying the full range of different sizes, Gardocki said, noting as an example a 32-ounce Vitabath, which retails for around $30.

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