Clifford Copeland, 86: Farm boy pharmacist founded discount drug chain

Clifford Copeland went from farm boy to formidable force in regional retailing with his chain of 42 discount drugstores.

His company, Copeland Drugs Inc., won customers by setting prices 20 percent below the competition’s standard.

“He offered a much better price, undercut the competition and still made a profit,” his daughter, Cynthia Hodge, said.

Clifford Eugene Copeland, a Korean War intelligence officer who briefly played minor league baseball and founded one of the Southeast’s first discount retail pharmacy chains, died June 7. He was 86.

The Cullman, Ala., native and longtime Sandy Springs resident grew up on a farm, where his large, God-fearing family worked hard. He left school several weeks a year to help with the planting and harvesting.

After graduating from high school, Copeland spent four years in the U.S. Air Force, serving in the intelligence/security division in Germany during the Korean War. At 6-foot-3, he played on the United States European Championship Basketball Team while stationed in Germany.

He was a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians minor league club in 1954. But he decided to focus on going to college, getting married and supporting a family, his daughter said. “He couldn’t predict the longevity of a baseball career,” she said. “But he knew obtaining an education was a solid foundation for later success.”

Copeland attended Saint Bernard College in Cullman and received a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from Howard College of Pharmacy in Birmingham. He moved soon after to the Atlanta area, where he lived the rest of his life.

Working for the large retail chain Liggett Rexall Drugs, he learned a marketing strategy that would serve him well. Liggett Rexall, noticing sagging Sunday sales, sent 20-percent-off coupons redeemable on Sundays and found the public’s response overwhelming, Copeland’s daughter said.

When Copeland opened his first pharmacy, he priced all merchandise and prescriptions at 20 percent above cost, half of what other retailers charged. And he offered that discounted price every day, not just Sundays. His strategy was such a hit that sometimes 60 to 70 people would be lined up in the morning, waiting for the store to open.

Copeland Drugs Inc. started with one store in Huntsville, Ala., in 1960 and grew to 42 stores, mostly in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. A store in Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Camille.

Copeland had a massive heart attack in 1978 when he was just 47. After that, he didn’t open many new stores but worked to maintain his existing ones.

His longtime office and three of his drugstores were near Northside Hospital and the surrounding medical hub. “Having a drugstore in the same building as the doctor’s office allowed people the convenience of one-stop shopping,” Cynthia Hodge said.

Copeland also owned a tire store, a used car lot and a deli.

Outside of his business, he enjoyed coaching his children in sports, deep-sea fishing and golf. Bird watching became a later-life interest.

“Somehow, as busy as he must have been, my father managed to make our family a priority as well,” his daughter said. “We had family vacations. We played tennis and golf. We fished. We bowled. We rode horses. Looking back, I remember a lot of quality family time.”

For more than 40 years, Copeland was a devoted member of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Scott Downing said he knew him as “a hard, hard worker, a go-getter and very much a people person.”

Cynthia Hodge said her father didn’t talk about his achievements in sports or business, except if asked. “For the most part, my dad was a humble, unassuming man with simple values,” she said.

Copeland was preceded in death by his wife of 58 years, Jeanne Davis Copeland, and a sister and three brothers. His survivors include his son, Clifford Eugene “Cal” Copeland, Jr.; daughter, Cynthia Copeland Hodge; grandchildren Jordan Hodge, Aubrey Hodge, and

Davis Hodge; and brother, Donald Winfred Copeland A private family memorial service was held.

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