The Right Choice, For 50 Years

Johnston Wholesale

The need for a new company, able to dedicate itself to organizing the tough health and beauty section and its hard-to-place products, was seen in 1963 by a husband and wife team named Howard and Delphine Johnston. After working for another company and having a disagreement on how things should operate, Howard Johnston decided to part ways and become his own entity. Coming from a background in wholesale, it was a natural fit for him to stay in that part of the market.

Today, the company sells health and beauty aids as well as other general merchandise to the independent grocer component of the retail market in British Columbia. “If it’s a retail store that is privately owned then we will very likely be doing business with them,” says Earle Johnston, the current President of Johnston Wholesale.

“We are very fortunate in the respect that we operate by taking a certain segment within the grocery store and handle it completely because it’s something that is very hard for them to do,” says Earle.

Earle Johnston has been with the company for forty-two years and shares ownership and management responsibilities with his sister Theresa Korney. They feel very appreciative to see their company turn fifty this year. “In our father’s day, health and beauty products were called drug sundries and that’s why the company’s name is Johnston Drug Wholesale Limited,” Earle explains. “We don’t operate as such any longer because these days the word drug relates to pharmaceuticals and we don’t deal with those kinds of products. In his day, the independent grocer didn’t want to carry those items because he was too busy maintaining his basic business, cutting meat, preparing produce and stacking cans of veggies. My dad offered to do this service and take care of that category for them.

“Today we are still able to do the same thing because even though the shopkeeper doesn’t have the same role, and there are numerous employees looking after the store, there are so many skus (stock-keeping units) in that section that it’s incredibly hard for them to keep up with. Our clientele don’t have the infrastructure needed to manage such a large sku base. It wouldn’t be worth their while; it’s too complicated. We manage it for them, and help keep the customers in their stores by providing more of a one stop shopping experience.”

Within the company, there are many elements that are constantly changing. Johnston Wholesale not only takes care of Health and Beauty and General Merchandise, it also has a very strong seasonal program as well. This program is designed to capitalize on the opportunities each season brings to their categories. The company handles these needs for approximately four hundred stores within the province and some parts of Alberta.

British Columbia is something of an unusual market because there is such a large independent grocer base; this isn’t the case in the rest of the chain-dominated Canadian provinces. It would be safe to say that if Johnston Wholesale had gotten its start in any other province, it would likely not be turning fifty this year; it probably would have gone out of business when the large chains came in and took over the market with their vast financial resources.

In British Columbia, however, there are plenty of smaller chains ranging from two to over forty stores who all benefit from the work that Johnston Wholesale is doing for them. “Many retailers have tried to manage these products themselves,” explains Earle. “But it’s too hard to educate the staff because there are just too many items to deal with and, as mentioned before, they change with great frequency.”

According to Earle, “In the grocery business, retailers are too busy selling grocery basics that turn more rapidly to worry about some of the smaller categories. The thing is, you could have the items there and not manage them all that well and it will make up about two percent of sales; or you can have it run properly and it could turn into six or seven percent of sales, that’s the difference that we bring to the table. We put the right mix on the shelf and we sell more product; Johnston Wholesale makes it more convenient for the consumer, and helps keep them in the store longer. We are very focused on the categories we handle.”

Johnston Wholesale does this by keeping an eye on trends from location to location, using a dedicated representative for each store that is serviced. It’s all about knowing what is going to sell. The company has about fifteen sales representatives, several of whom have been with the business for nearly twenty years. Johnston’s employees don’t just manage the products that go into the store; they set up and continuously reline the sections.

Not being afraid to break from the norm, Johnston Wholesale listens to its customers with regard to products they would like to see more of in their stores. For example, many people in British Columbia appreciate natural products, so in response, the company stocks a large variety of natural products that most other distributors don’t.

For many of the large chains, flexibility doesn’t seem to be part of their business model. If they don’t list a brand or item that a customer is looking for, then it’s tough luck, and what’s happening is that people who want unique items are finding them more difficult to locate. The large companies, having bought out the older, family owned general stores, carry merchandise that has become more generalized.

Yet even in the face of these giants, wholesalers like Johnston Wholesale are helping keep Canada unique by catering to customer needs and providing independent retailers with an edge in the marketplace. As it goes into its fiftieth year, Johnston Wholesale is sure to continue carving out a niche for itself, its products, and its top level service.

October 20, 2018, 5:12 AM EDT