In a drugstore market dominated by national chains, the key to Seattle’s pharmaceutical future lies beyond candy and aspirin.

By Ronald Holden, Originally Posted on CrossCut, October 28, 2012

Would you like a good-night story, children? The complex history of retail pharmacies in Seattle will put you to sleep in no time. Enough zany characters to populate a zoo, and the biggest casualty is a 500-pound gorilla known to its friends as PayLess Drugs.

The lone local survivor, Bartells, with about 650 stores, is doing battle with national giants Walgreen’s and Rite Aid. (The third national player, CVS, doesn’t have a significant presence in the Northwest.)

Freestanding drug stores are as ubiqitous as supermarkets, and with good reason. Sooner or later, everybody needs toilet paper and everybody needs a presciption filled. Or at least a bottle of aspirin. The neighborhood pharmacy, like the neighborhood grocery, is a lumbering relic compared to the chain stores, and the biggest competition these days is in the so-called Wellness aisles.

The Rite Aid store at Third and Vine provides an example of this battleground. It’s just one of almost 5,000 Rite Aid stores around the country; the company had revenues of $25 billion last year. The Belltown store is a handsome, two-story concrete building that once housed a printing plant, and was a prime target for residential development. But the parcel was spared when Wood Partners bowed to neighborhood pressure and agreed to build a 26-story apartment tower on the quarter block to the north instead.

Given a new lease on life, Rite Aid promptly remodeled, and announced a Grand Reopening devoted to what it’s calling Wellness Plus. Most Rite-Aid stores in Washington are big enough to have several dozen feet of shelfspace stocked with liquor, but booze, it seems, is no longer where the money is.

Wellness Plus includes over 2,500 high-margin, store-branded products: fitness equpment, organic and gluten-free foods. In additionon to the traditional beauty products, cosmetics, fragrances, antacids, laxatives, nutrition drinks and hair coloring kits, Rite Aid offers pharmacists trained to give immunizations and text messages that alert you as soon as your presciption has been automatically refilled. Diabetes management is an industry all its own, in person and online. Large-type prescription fonts, too. And then it gets woo-woo: vitamins for your pets, copper and magnetic bracelets, homeopathic medicines and organic foods.

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