Competing with CVS no easy task

November 20, 2018

Stamford Pharmacy closed last week at the High Ridge Shopping Center, an apparent casualty of an increasingly challenging landscape for independent drugstores.

Messages posted in the front window confirmed the closing, while the business’ sign on its front-entrance overhang has been removed. The postings direct customers to fill their prescriptions at a neighboring CVS Pharmacy on High Ridge Road. The signs did not give a reason for the shutdown, which disappointed many customers.

“There’s something nice about visiting a retailer who knows you, and you know them, and Stamford Pharmacy was just like that,” said customer David Lewis. “Larger players like Walgreens and CVS, where I will now go, made it difficult for Stamford Pharmacy to compete. In the end, I guess they just could not maintain a large enough customer base. I am sad to see them go, and yet realize this is a trend that continues throughout ‘Main Street’ retail.”

A message sent to an email account listed for Stamford Pharmacy was not returned. Officials at Urstadt Biddle, the owner of High Ridge Shopping Center, declined to comment.

Other independently owned pharmacies said they are grappling with the growing dominance of chains like Walgreens and CVS. In many cases, insurers mandate that their customers fill their prescriptions at CVS stores, according to several local pharmacists.

Bolstering its power, CVS is buying Hartford-based insurance giant Aetna for $69 billion. The merger would combine one of the country’s largest drugstore chains and pharmacy managers in CVS and one of the longest-running health insurers in Aetna, whose coverage spans employer health insurance and public-sector plans.

Independent pharmacies like Greenwich Pharmacy — which has stores at 116 Greenwich Ave., in Greenwich, and at 118 Main St., in New Canaan — have partially offset the lack of profits on prescriptions by doing brisk sales on “front store” items such as deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste.

“I don’t think anyone could have an independent pharmacy without having a successful front store,” said Donald Campbell, manager of Greenwich Pharmacy. “It’s helping to alleviate the pressure.”

Owners of locally owned businesses also cite the connection between service quality and customer loyalty.

“I have a niche business that I don’t think CVS can touch because of my community connections,” John Ciuffo, owner of Cornerstone Pharmacy, at 134 Stillwater Ave., in Stamford, said in a recent interview. “I don’t run a mini-mart with a pharmacy in it; I have a traditional pharmacy. People appreciate the more professional atmosphere in my establishment versus walking through a mini-mart to get their prescription.”

A few blocks from Ciuffo’s pharmacy, a CVS Pharmacy opened last month at 1938 W. Main St., its ninth CVS location in the city.

CVS operates 174 stores in Connecticut; many of them are open 24 hours. The Woonsocket, R.I.-based company runs about 9,800 outlets nationwide.

In southwestern Connecticut, CVS accounts for about one in four pharmacies, according to state data. Walgreens has about the same number, including Rite Aid locations it acquired earlier this year. Among the other pharmacies in the region, another quarter are independently operated, with remaining counters operated largely by supermarkets and health clinics.

Locally owned establishments face other pressures, including diminishing reimbursement rates from insurers and rising drug prices.

Bridgeport Community Pharmacy, at 192 Fairfield Ave., in the city’s downtown, has been slowly growing in the past few years. But the business might close down or be sold to another party within the next two to three years if the reimbursement and pricing trends do not significantly change, according to Pratik Sheth, BCP’s pharmacy manager.

“If we were to close, it won’t be us who suffer, it will be the patients who suffer,” Sheth said. “The chains don’t provide the service that we can. We provide free home delivery service, and that’s important because the majority of our patient population is elderly. It’s difficult for many of them to get out of the house. If all of us independent pharmacies were to shut down, that would pose a significant problem for these patients.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; Twitter: @paulschott

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