Independent Island Drug thrives

If this were a boxing match, Bill Bulpin would be the little guy who dodges, bobs and weaves his way to survival against the big hitters. In this case, the big boppers carry such names as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Albertson’s.

Bulpin and his wife Gail have owned Island Drug for 15 years, and today their store is doing better than ever despite the tremendous increase in competition since they arrived on the scene in April, 1987.

Island Drug is located on Pioneer Way, off the main drag that attracted all the mega competition. But customers don’t mind driving a few blocks out of their way to find the friendly service and specialized offerings they want.

“What sets us apart is service,” Bulpin said last week, as his staff was preparing for next week’s 15th anniversary celebration. “Customer service — make it easy for them.”

Bulpin has been a pharmacist for 42 years, but he’s hardly stuck in his ways. In 1995, he and Gail decided to open a drive-through window for prescription pick-ups. “Now it’s 33 percent of our business,” he said of the only such window in town.

Parents with cars full of kids drive through and pick up their prescriptions, as do the elderly and disabled who find it difficult to get out of their cars. The window also attracts folks who are simply in a hurry, and it allows Island Drug to offer the only after-hours emergency prescription service in town.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the pharmacy isn’t Island Drug’s main money-maker. Due to high costs, Bulpin said that part of his operation breaks even. “Other departments have to make it up,” he said.

Through the years, Island Drug’s other attractions have varied somewhat, depending on the market. Today, there’s a well-stocked gift area run by Suzie Long, with items that, as described by Bulpin, “fit the budget of our people.” Long also operates the espresso stand and the fudge shop, which boasts 25 varieties of fudge hand-made by Long.

When the JC Penney clothing store across the street closed in 1998, the company still wanted a catalog store in town. Bulpin provided the space, and today several of those old Penneys employees work in Island Drug, selling out of the catalog. “We brought’em inside our store and it’s been good for the community,” Bulpin said. “It’s a significant service.”

Catalog sales manager Pam LaMond worked at the Penney’s store from 1982 to 1998, but is happy with her new position, she said. “Everyone says they miss the store but they’re glad we’re here.” Real catalogs — not computers — are used, and orders are hand-written. “We do it the old fashioned way,” LaMond laughed. It’s another service that customers appreciate.

The Bulpins through the years have stopped offering soup, sandwiches and ice cream, as well as film developing. These went out as competition in those areas increased. In came the fudge and espresso, more gifts, pharmacy improvements and, most recently, the “Whidbey Wellness Center,” operated by Raymond Dent, a naturopathic physician.

Dr. Dent offers a wide array of diagnostic testing, remedies and nutritional supplements, and he’s in the store Mondays through Wednesday for discussion and consultation. “We’re doing quite nicely,” he said of the Wellness department. “I don’t know of another like it on the island.”

The Bulpins purchased the building in 1993, provide jobs to 27 people, own a nice home on the beach, and are pleased by their risky decision 15 years ago to go into business for themselves. After all, Bill already had a good job selling pharmaceuticals throughout Northwest Washington.

Buying the store was a gamble, but hard work and adaptability made it pay off.

Bulpin said there’s a lot of satisfaction in owning one’s own business, even in these highly competitive times. “You can manifest your own destiny,” he said. “But you’ve got to see the big picture.”

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