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C.O. Bigelow’s Secret Formula: How a 180-Year Old Family-Run Business Stays Relevant, Profitable

Posted by Kristin Swenson, Wholesale Distribution Industry Marketing Lead

Asked how he deals with that simultaneously nebulous and ubiquitous term “disruption” that defines the retail space today, Ian Ginsberg recalls a wave of it that occurred nearly 40 years ago – when the chain store pharmacies started to move into New York City. He remembers his father, then the owner of C.O. Bigelow, sitting down every week with the other owners of local pharmacies, passionately debating the prices they’d set for Bic pens or Tylenol in the upcoming weekly circular in order to compete with the new big box stores.

That’s when it hit Ginsberg: C.O. Bigelow was never going to win on price alone. But it could win on experience – in both senses of that word.

“They have 8,000 stores. That’s a game you can’t win,” he recalled saying at the time. “While everybody’s chasing the price and the corner, let’s focus on doing something else. Let’s focus on things that we have that they don’t have. Let’s focus on things we can own that they can't own.

The business, now in its 180th year, then had 145 years of experience to draw on. It had a brand and a flagship store in Greenwich Village renowned for dispensing superior products and trustworthy advice on everything from blush to blood pressure medication. Staying true to that – and building on it – would continue to differentiate it from bigger competitors and carve out and cement the value of its brand in a world in which “everyone is a Google doctor or Google beauty advisor.”

“My philosophy is, if it’s a game you can’t win, play a different game,” he said.

In the years since, that philosophy has helped C.O. Bigelow continue to drive growth as a profitable brand. The New York retail store has expanded as an online seller and wholesale distributor of beauty and care products to 1,000 retail partners like Nordstrom and Sephora, and continues to introduce its customers to products they can’t find anywhere else as an importer and distributor of “likeminded” multigenerational brands -- such as a 100-plus-year-old Italian shaving cream.

Selling products decades later with the same ethos that inspired Eleanor Roosevelt to pen a thank you note in 1942 doesn’t mean C.O. Bigelow needs to change its business model, or look for an exit strategy, but instead it finds ways to maintain its legacy in a fast-moving, complex market. Ginsberg – now prepping his son as the fourth generation to lead the business – will share his advice in an exclusive webcast.

“If you’re lucky enough to build something and sell it tomorrow, then what are you going to do?,” Ginsberg said. “What happened to building something for the sake of building it? And loving doing something you’re passionate about? We take a long-haul view.”

Register for the Jan. 16 webcast to hear advice from a business legend on building something that is profitable and lasting, including:

  • How Ginsberg continues to build and drive a profitable C.O. Bigelow brand, and what he looks for in introducing new products.
  • How C.O. Bigelow is using Amazon, and what advantages integration with online marketplaces can lend to the brick-and-mortar store.
  • How a 180-year old business is dealing with today’s economic realities, including everything from tariffs to complying with regulations on beauty products that differ by country.