The corner drugstore still means life or death
In simpler times, it was called the corner drug. In both small towns and urban cores, it was a lifesaver. Neighborhood pharmacists knew their customers and their idiosyncrasies, and doled out sage advice along with brown bottles.
Fifty years ago, little kids could buy penny gumballs and ride coin-operated broncos at their local drugstore. Big kids could hang out at the soda fountain and sip real cherry Cokes.
Ladies could browse tidy aisles stocked with talcum powder, hair curlers and Toni home perms. Contrite husbands could slink in and buy last-minute cologne spritzers and boxed chocolates for forgotten birthdays and anniversaries.
The local drugstore has always done things that online pharmacies simply can’t. They could get to know people, watch them carefully, and notice telltale changes in their health. Then talk to them about it face to face, as a concerned neighbor.
Jenn Shanks RN sees the critical need for that kind of personal service. “I try to use little local pharmacies rather than chains for that exact reason. They pick up on when their older customers are moving slowly, seem more confused, or are not refilling their meds on time. They also try harder to make sure that these crazy new meds get authorized or approved by crappy Medicare drug plans.”
Struggling to compete against the odds
But the long, deep recession has plagued Washington’s independent pharmacies.
Fife Pharmacy in Fife, Everett’s Harbour Pointe Pharmacy, and Spokane Valley’s Halpin’s Pharmacy and Treasure Room were among those that were forced to close, unable to compete with mega-chains like Walmart and Target and online pharmacies like drugstore.com.
Cardinal Health, which ranks 19th of Fortune’s 2013 best companies, offers their advice. Cardinal tells independent drugstores, “Most pharmacies cannot solely rely on prescription fulfillment as an effective long-term business model. Pharmacies need to expand their scope to other high-margin and growth opportunities, which include the front-end, niche product offerings and differentiated services.”
Many of Washington State’s surviving independent pharmacies are doing their best to follow Cardinal’s advice.
Some pharmacies focus on down home products. Hi-School Pharmacy and Hardware in Woodland mixes paint, makes keys, sells tools, cuts Plexiglas, sharpens knives, rents Rug Doctors, exchanges propane, and hands out free popcorn.
Hedden’s Pharmacy in Tenino sells hunting and fishing licenses, money orders, lottery tickets, and liquor.
Other pharmacies specialize in luxury niche markets. Seattle’s Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy focuses on natural and holistic products, like herbs, massage oils, homeopathics, and aromatherapy.
On the Puget Sound waterfront, Des Moines Drug and Hallmark features upscale clothing, artisan jewelry, and seaside art to attract wealthy marina visitors.
In the foothills of Washington’s Cascades, Eatonville’s Kirk’s Pharmacy and Gifts offers a wide variety of gifts, memorabilia, books by local authors, plus first aid and travel supplies for tourists venturing to nearby Mount Rainier.
Cheerful sales clerks chat with customers who are picking up last minute necessities and souvenirs before heading off to the mountains for hiking, skiing, or lake fishing.
Because that’s what real live neighbors do. They watch out for those in their community who need help.
Wage hikes hurt small businesses that help the most vulnerable
For independent pharmacies to provide the front-end niche products advised by Cardinal Health, they generally rely on entry-level sales clerks–especially those who can cheerfully encourage non-necessities and impulse buys that could often be found cheaper online, or in a big box store. Who really needs a twenty dollar candle? Or a six dollar fridge magnet when they come stuck to your phone book for free?
But as any recession-era small business owner can tell you, you do what you have to do to survive. And if hawking Beanie Babies helps you hang on to your grandfather’s drugstore, that’s what you do.
But it’s not the salaries of the minimum wage positions that will hurt just small businesses like independent pharmacies the most. It is the ripple effect into the salaries of the higher paid employees.
The Brookings Institution states that the ripple effect of a minimum wage increase significantly affects businesses that have critical employees who make higher than minimum wage.
To preserve their internal wage structure and retain good employees, they need to give comparable raises to their higher paid employees, as well. Those are the wage increases that can hurt small businesses the most.
In addition to pharmacists, independent pharmacies also rely on skilled assistants like credentialed pharmacy technicians and compounding technicians. Besides the professional-level salary of a pharmacist, the average technicians’ salaries are higher than minimum wage as well.
Wage hike ripple effect means hours get cut
CNN Money adds that the ripple effect can actually cause smaller paychecks through reduced hours, in businesses that can get by with less staffing. Many businesses, however, have already cut their staff to the bone.
And many independent drugstores can’t pay for wage increases by raising prices for their recession-stricken customers and fixed-income seniors–particularly when online pharmacies and mega-stores can offer dirt cheap prices.
With no wiggle room left between costs and prices, it seems unavoidable that even more independent pharmacies will have to shut their doors, when faced with significant minimum wage increases and the resultant ripple effects into the higher salaries.
Especially when places like Seattle and SeaTac pass a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Then who will notice when elderly customers are moving slowly, seem more confused, or are not refilling their meds on time? A computer screen?