Pharmacist Gary Balo has been the proprietor of Paulsen’s Pharmacy since 1978. The store has been in operation in Portland since 1918. // Photo by Eric Näslund
“It takes a lot more effort to stay in business today,” says Gary Balo, the proprietor of Paulsen’s Pharmacy in Portland, a store that has been in operation since 1918. “There’s more paperwork and the big insurance companies make the rules.” But other market conditions, such as an aging population, are more promising. Competing as an independent, Balo says, requires carving out a niche and banding together with fellow owners to boost purchasing power and political clout. In an era of health care reform, it also means convincing consumers and legislators that neighborhood drugstores are not relics of the past, but instead play a role in containing costs and improving patient outcomes. “We provide a service that cannot be matched,” says Balo.
Fein, who writes a well-known industry blog, DrugChannels, puts it more bluntly. “I have a tough-love message for independents,” he says. “Get big, get focused or get out.” The independent pharmacy industry represents a $94 million marketplace and employs about 62,000 pharmacists, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA), Although there are no official figures on the value of the Oregon market, there are about 624 retail pharmacies in Oregon, including independents, chains such as Rite-Aid and mass merchants such as Walmart.
To understand why so many independent pharmacists in Oregon chose to “get out” last year, start with the fact that many of the owners were in their 60s or 70s. “It was a huge slide,” acknowledges Diana Courtney, owner of Lake Shore Pharmacy in Lake Oswego and a member of the board of directors for the Oregon State Pharmacy Association. But according to Courtney, many of the pharmacies didn’t close for lack of business; they closed because the owners were retiring and there was no one to take over. David Swenson, the former owner of Bandon Pharmacy in Bandon, one of the 64 that closed over the past two years, is a case in point. Swenson, 73, spent the last eight years trying to sell his store — to no avail, although he did manage to sell his inventory to another Bandon pharmacy, Tiffany’s. “There’s a glut of us on the market,” he says.
Why? Certainly, the economy played a role. So did the workplace benefits, or the lack thereof, according to Swenson. “If you work for a chain, you get time off and paid vacations,” he says. “With independents, you don’t get that.”