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US The Pharmacist Is Out: Supermarkets Close Pharmacy Counters

22:50  26 january  2020
22:50  26 january  2020 Source:   online.wsj.com

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a green sign above a store© Christopher Lee/Bloomberg News

In some towns, it’s getting harder to pick up your blood-pressure pills with that gallon of milk and rotisserie chicken.

Hundreds of regional grocery stores in cities from Minneapolis to Seattle are closing or selling pharmacy counters, which have been struggling as consumers make fewer trips to fill prescriptions and big drugstore chains tighten their grip on the U.S. market.

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Grocery pharmacies are getting hit on several fronts, analysts and the companies say. They are too small to wrest competitive reimbursement rates on drugs, they aren’t connected to big medical networks or insurers, and they generally lack walk-in clinics and other health services that draw many customers to CVS and Walgreens locations.

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“Our establishment had a community feel, it wasn’t overly busy so we got to really care for our customers,” said Phillip Breker, who managed a now-closed pharmacy at Lunds & Byerlys, a Minneapolis-area grocery chain. “I also saw the numbers in the back end and how that soured in the last 10 years. The company made the right decision.”

Grocery pharmacies are the latest casualty of industry consolidation that has for years been forcing mom-and-pop drugstores to close. Even some big players have rethought the market. Target Corp. sold off its pharmacy business to CVS Health Corp. five years ago.

Supermarkets have viewed pharmacies as a tool to draw shoppers in. Fueled by easy profits and relatively low startup costs, legions of stores added pharmacy counters in the 1980s and 1990s. Grocery drugstores proliferated to account for roughly 14% of retail pharmacy prescriptions, according to the National Association of Drug Stores.

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The number of grocery pharmacies declined for the first time in years in 2017, the latest year for which data is available, to 9,026, down from 9,344 in 2016.

Consumers are increasingly getting 90-day supplies of their medicines or getting prescriptions delivered in the mail. Those trends are resulting in a decline in foot traffic to supermarket pharmacies, which were typically located at the back of stores. Meantime, profits are ever harder to come by as the health-care industry consolidates.

CVS and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., the nation’s biggest players, contributed more than 40% of U.S. prescription revenues in 2018, according to Drug Channels Institute, which provides research on the drug supply chain.

The chains, which now either own or have partnerships with the biggest insurers and pharmacy-benefit managers, are able to secure better deals on drug costs that largely shut out the industry’s smaller players. Pharmacy-benefit managers serve insurers and other clients by choosing which medicines to cover and pushing for lower prices from drugmakers and sellers.

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CVS and Walgreens also are working to transform drugstores into health-care hubs, offering services from blood testing to chronic-disease management.

“The biggest companies in health care now have pharmacists and doctors, they own medical practices, and they own urgent-care clinics,” Baird analyst Eric Coldwell said. Grocery pharmacies “have none of this. They have a store to go into to buy lemons and bread.”

The tougher conditions come as the entire drugstore industry copes with a shift to online shopping and shrinking profits in prescription medicines, which often disproportionately affect smaller players.

Walgreens and CVS have closed or are closing more than 300 underperforming stores, while Rite Aid Corp., the No. 3 U.S. chain, is struggling to turn itself around after regulators blocked a merger with Walgreens in 2017.

Raley’s Supermarkets, a West Sacramento, Calif., chain of about 120 stores, last year shut down a third of its roughly 100 pharmacies and transferred prescriptions to nearby Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid stores. Those grocery pharmacies had low prescription rates, were losing money and didn’t merit high operating and labor costs, according to Raley’s.

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“There is the benefit of having a pharmacy relative to the grocery-sale lift and the convenience factor of having both in the store, but the economics do not work,” said Keith Knopf, chief executive of Raley’s.

Profitability for grocers has become harder to achieve in recent years, and pharmacies play a less important role today in attracting customers, Mr. Knopf said. Raley’s is cutting hours for the remaining pharmacies to improve profits and create efficiency. Pharmacies make up roughly 20% of Raley’s total sales.

Many grocers still view pharmacies as a key part of their business. Kroger Co., the biggest U.S. supermarket chain, said its pharmacy business is expected to improve this year after lower-than-expected profits in 2019. Kroger has said pharmacy shoppers tend to be more loyal, spending three times as much as nonpharmacy customers.

“We’ve been able to connect the relationship with food and are starting to build out new revenue streams,” Kroger finance chief Gary Millerchip said at an investor meeting in November.

Lunds & Byerlys, the Minnesota chain, shut all 14 of its supermarket pharmacies last year. At each location, it posted a sign that has become increasingly common: “The pharmacy is now closed. Your prescription records have been transferred to Walgreens.”

Mr. Breker, the pharmacy manager, now works for Walgreens at a location in a nearby town. “I literally cried at the counter with dozens of people,” he said. “They felt a loss here.”

Write to Sharon Terlep at sharon.terlep@wsj.com and Jaewon Kang at jaewon.kang@wsj.com

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