Once upon a time, these places were known as cash chemists, to distinguish them from dispensing chemists of the kind now often known – though not universally – as pharmacies. In both cases, you get the same goods on the open shelves. Some branches of cash chemists boast a pharmacy counter for prescriptions and the riskier remedies, some don’t. The branch of Superdrug I sampled – on London’s Strand – had no stern-but-kindly white-coated keeper of the phials. So there was nothing to distinguish it from any other kind of self-service shop.
Superdrug has that brash mid-Atlantic name to contend with. In the past it also had a ghastly logo, and although there is now a more conventionally tasteful one, you can’t escape the enormous shiny blue facia that has long been the hallmark of the chain. Where chemists’ shops like Boots used to pretend that everything in the shop had some kind of medicinal or therapeutic quality – the only sweets they used to sell were for diabetics, for instance – the rise of stores like Superdrug means that these are all now much more like general stores. They have fewer biscuits and more medicines than the average supermarket, but you are as likely to pop in to buy a sandwich as you are for a tube of Germoloids and a bottle of Benylin Expectorant.
The atmosphere in Superdrug always was cut-price – that was the point – and though the shop interiors are smarter than they used to be, they’re only up to the standard of, say, Woolworth’s. But the appearance of the goods has come on in leaps and bounds, and much of the improvement is to be found in the own-brand products since the set up of a design roster with help from Nucleus. They’re not totally consistent yet, but at least someone is trying.
Take something simple, cheap, and useful: a little clear-plastic scent spray bottle. Empty, so you put what you want in it. This little object costs pence, and still bears the slightly curious, but strangely appealing Superdrug bath duck motif. You can find the same labelling on a range of dirt-cheap bathroom odds and ends – like a soap dish and a toothbrush case – in strong-coloured translucent plastics: blue, yellow, orange, green. They’re cheap without looking cheap: you can buy waste-paper bins in the Conran Shop made out of this stuff, and Bodum electric kettles.
The chain uses other devices for its other ranges, the worst being those that try to ape the look of existing branded products. The cough medicine range works pretty well: subtler than many of its branded rivals, the packs have diagrammatic labels – you can tell whether it’s for throat or chest at a glance. Conversely, some welcome humour is brought to bear on the own-brand range of sticking plasters, where cartoon characters are shown sporting the products.
Equally good is Superdrug’s cod liver oil range. I don’t know what cod liver oil is for, and I have no idea if real cod are involved these days, but all chemists have stocked the stuff since the dawn of time. Realising they can’t do without it, Superdrug packages it well, in a blue and white box with fuzzy purple fish shapes. It looks almost palatable, assuming that’s what you are meant to do with it. Or do you rub it on?
The own-brand shampoo bottles are non-descript, but then most shampoo bottles are. The only reasonably good one I saw was John Frieda’s Ready to Wear range. This at any rate has the virtue of simplicity both in shape and in graphic treatment. But here’s a mystery: why does hair dye have such ghastly packaging? In this shop there seemed to be dozens of hair-colour brands, all trying to look as horrible as each other. Superdrug’s was by no means the worst: that accolade must go to Schwarzkopf’s Country Colors range, complete with inanely grinning models in a setting of autumn leaves.
I never understand why, with cut-throat competition between brands for a given product, they should all try to look as much like each other as possible. Shouldn’t the clever ones be trying to look different? As with hair dye, so with soaps and gels – with the honourable exception of the Original Source shower gel range (lime, mint, orange) where the fruit-flavour product shines through the clear bottles with their bold lettering and black caps. You can spot Original Source from right across the shop. Stop me if I’m wrong, but I’d have thought they’d get quite a few extra sales just because of the visual distinctiveness of the product.
The best-in-shop award, however, goes not to this, nor any own-brand product. I was tempted by a can of Brasso metal polish wadding, but everyone knows that’s a classic – like Lyle’s Golden Syrup. It’s too easy. No, the prize must surely go to Benetton’s range of condoms. These are packaged in four different variations and their success is that they are not like anyone’s idea of how a pack of condoms should look. Eschewing the soft-focus look of Durex and the bloke-ishness of Mates, the Benetton boxes go for saturated colour and unexpected patterns, with the boldly striped Exotica pack probably the best. They look positively designerly. It’s the sort of approach that would pay dividends if applied to tampons and sanitary towels, but in this store at least there was little evidence of innovation there: Bodyform’s packaging was the best of an indifferent selection.
Strange, isn’t it, that the baby stuff is placed so close to the contraceptives in these stores? Is the idea that this is the corner devoted to sex and its possible consequences, or is it just that all shaped rubber comes from the same place? Either way, a few steps from Benetton’s condoms brings you to racks of feeding bottles and the like. There you find the scientific miracle of Avent’s variable-flow silicone teats. “Reliably proven to reduce colic in the newborn,” it says, which, if true, is a medical breakthrough. The graphics on the back of the blister-pack are crap but the things themselves are rather beautiful and look clever, even if they don’t work. They promise three different flow rates, each chosen by lining up the baby’s nose with one or other of the marks on the clear teat. Another good-design mention in this section goes to Superdrug’s baby bath/lotion/shampoo bottles with their unfussy design and simple grip mouldings. Much better than the adult equivalents.
The worst thing in the shop? Without doubt the packaging of Givenchy’s awesomely expensive Organza perfume, which tries to look high-value in a hammered-gold kind of way but only succeeds in looking revoltingly tacky. A box of Terry’s All Gold chocolates has more about it than this. And when you see the Organza next to the wonderful, timeless packaging of Chanel’s classic perfumes, you could weep. Or you could vote with your purse and buy the Chanel rather than the Givenchy.
Men’s toiletries are funny rather than good – all those products named and styled in a way that amounts to a lethal mix of real ale and fast cars. But among all this, you encounter good old Brylcreem, and here there’s a gem. Brylcreem’s maximum hold styling wax comes in a flat circular tin of the kind that usually contains shoe polish – complete with the little built-in twist-opener. Since the stuff inside presumably is very like shoe polish, this packaging is ironically appropriate. And the graphics are good and simple, red and white on a grey ground. Amid all the hectic macho packaging of men’s foams, lotions and scents, it was good to find a self-aware little item like this. Though having little by way of hair to Brylcreem, it was no use to me. I walked out of the store with only one item, and it wasn’t a pack of Benetton condoms, either. It was a three-way adapter socket, price 1.99. Has middle age struck at last?