Last July, Chas McCormick opened First State Pharmacy in North Wilmington, at the busy intersection of Foulk and Silverside roads.
There are two large chain drugstores within walking distance of McCormick’s independent pharmacy. And that’s precisely why he set up shop there.
“I wanted to be close to Walgreens and Rite Aid so people could conveniently switch their prescriptions to us,” he says. “I wish I had a dollar for everybody who has walked in my door, slapped a prescription on the counter and said, ‘I can’t take the chains anymore.’”
First State is one of 19 independently owned pharmacies in Delaware, a small but growing sector of the market. Druggists are working hard to win patrons through such specialized offerings as medical equipment sales and rentals, prescriptions for pets and helping patients to manage their medications for complex diseases, including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
McCormick, who spent 18 years as a pharmacist and manager at Happy Harry’s, says he modeled his store on the family-owned chain. Happy Harry’s was acquired in 2006 by Walgreens, the largest drugstore chain in the United States.
“I say, put the ‘happy’ back in your community pharmacy,” he says.
At his 3,200-square-foot store, McCormick offers such personalized services as free delivery and compounding, the mixing of drugs to make a unique medicine to fill the needs of an individual patient.
In addition to prescription drugs, First State Pharmacy sells over-the-counter medications, supplements, medical equipment, and health and beauty aids. Unlike most community pharmacies, the store is open on Sundays and carries a selection of convenience-oriented merchandise, such as milk and batteries, as Happy Harry’s did.
McCormick says the most valuable offering at the pharmacy isn’t rung up at the cash register.
“It’s knowing your patients by name and expressing genuine concern for them,” he says. “It’s taking the time to have a conversation with the senior who relies on your professionalism and has confidence that you know his or her profile.”
The personal touch makes all the difference, says Sheila Tucker, owner of Market Street Pharmacy in the Lower Brandywine Village section of Wilmington.
“We show our customers that we appreciate them,” she says. “We treat them like family.”
Tucker works closely with seniors to make certain they understand how to take their medicine.
“There are times when someone gets a new medication but keeps on taking the old one, too—and then they wonder why they are falling down,” she says.
If a patient can’t afford a prescription, Tucker will call the doctor to ask if a less expensive alternative is available.
“We might even be able to eliminate a drug the patient no longer needs,” she says. “Our goal is to come up with the most effective regimen at the lowest cost.”
Calvin Freedman, owner of SaveWay Compounding Pharmacy in Newark, is thriving as an independent by filling a niche. At his lab in an industrial complex, Freedman fills doctors’ orders for bio-equivalent hormone replacement treatments, adult medications modified for children, and remedies for dogs, cats and other animals.
“In the old days, when I first started in pharmacy, compounding was the way to go,” he says. “Now it is a specialty.”
SaveWay isn’t open after 6 p.m. during the week and is closed on Sundays. The pharmacy doesn’t accept insurance, although patients may file claims with their providers.
“What we do offer is personalized service, pharmacy the way it was practiced 100 years ago,” Freedman says. “To us, each patient is truly an individual.”
At Atlantic Apothecary in Smyrna, pharmacist Kevin Musto says independent drugstores are typically better staffed than chain stores. That is essential in providing a high level of customer service.
“We put our energy into staffing, people who will talk to you on the phone, people in the store who can answer questions,” he says. “We know our drugs and we know our insurance plans. Most of all, we know our patients.”
He believes that developing a personal relationship opens the lines of communications. When people talk, the level of care improves.
“Filling a prescription is more than smacking a label on a bottle and handing it to a patient,” Musto says. “A drug is not a commodity. It needs to include education, a conversation.”
That differs from the model adopted by large pharmacy chains, which carry a diverse mix of revenue-generating products, including cosmetics, groceries and seasonal decorations.
“At our independent pharmacy, we don’t sell potato chips and soda,” says Carl June, owner of Cape Pharmacy in The Villages of Five Points in Lewes. “We are interested in health and wellness, not general retail.”
In addition to prescription medicines and compounding, Cape offers homeopathic remedies. The staff handles Medicare paperwork for durable medical goods ranging from walkers to kits that people with diabetes use to monitor the level of glucose in their blood.
The chains have greater buying power, but June says that doesn’t always result in lower prices. Recently, a longtime Cape customer who lost her benefits when her job was eliminated compared the prices of her medication at several area drugstores in order to find the lowest out-of-pocket cost.
“Our price was not only less than the two chains in town, we were significantly less,” June says.
At Georgetown Pharmacy, Tejas Sheth is compounding acid reflux medicines for babies and creams that relieve pain. Almost every day, he or a staff member goes online to look for promotional coupons from drug manufacturers. Reducing a co-pay from $30 to $15 could enable a patient to buy food for that night’s dinner.
“I think it is important to know all my patients by name,” Sheth says. “They can talk to me openly about what is going on in their lives.”
Instead of filling prescriptions in the order they arrive, Sheth prioritizes service for people who are ill or have another urgent need.
“It does not make sense to work on routine scripts while someone who is not feeling well is waiting for medicine,” he says.
He opened this business last fall, rehabilitating a space that previously housed a laundromat. Going into business for himself enables Sheth to take care of people without the pressures of corporate quotas. He expects to offer a full line of medical equipment, the better to serve patients on Medicare.
“We are going to see more community drugstores in the coming years,” Sheth says. “Patients need individual attention and we are happy to provide it.”