A new retailing trend is hitting the streets of L.A. and drivers won’t even have to leave their cars to experience it.
Drive-through pharmacies are making their Los Angeles debut and providing a cure for those who are too sick or too busy to park and walk into a full-service drug store.
Several drive-throughs are already open and more are under construction throughout L.A.
At the forefront of the drive-through craze are two big national chains, Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid, owner of Thrifty PayLess Inc.
Walgreen recently opened its first two L.A. drive-through pharmacies, and plans to open at least another six within the next three years.
In addition to “Walgreens RxPress,” the name given to the chain’s drive-throughs, Rite Aid will soon begin building 100 new Thrifty PayLess stores on the West Coast with drive-through pharmacy windows.
About 250 of the existing 1,007 Thrifty PayLess stores on the West Coast will be remodeled or relocated. Those remodelings will include the addition of drive-through windows at each store with a location that would accommodate them.
Rite Aid plans to spend $200 million on expanding and upgrading its Thrifty PayLess stores. Company officials are still in the process of evaluating which stores to remodel and which ones to relocate.
“Most of the Thrifty PayLess stores that will be remodeled or relocated will have drive-through pharmacy windows,” said Sarah Batz, a spokeswoman for Rite Aid. “The prototype stores that we will be building include the drive-through windows as well.”
Meanwhile, Walgreen plans to spend $400 million this year on its national expansion program, which includes eight drive-through pharmacies in the L.A. area.
“We will be spending several million dollars in the L.A. market on the RxPress locations,” said Walgreen spokesman Michael Polzin. “L.A. was chosen because it is the biggest market that we have not yet entered.”
The emergence of drive-through service at major pharmacy chains may pose a threat to neighborhood pharmacies that either can’t afford to install drive-through windows or whose locations will not accommodate such an addition.
“This trend is damaging to independent pharmacists, certainly from a competitive standpoint,” said Tom Pitaccio, vice president of sales for Barnes Wholesale, a supplier of drugs and over-the-counter items to independent pharmacies.
“Additionally, for the sake of convenience, it is possible that the patient may be circumventing the pharmacist-patient relationship, as (customers) will no doubt be in a hurry,” he said.
Independent pharmacist Leo McStrul disagreed.
“The competition won’t hurt me,” McStrul said. “We (independents) beat the chain stores on service, so it is doubtful that we will feel the competition there.”
McStrul who operates three independent pharmacies and serves as chairman of the Academy of Pharmacy Owners, which represents 1,100 independent pharmacists in California does foresee problems resulting from the coming wave of drive-through pharmacies if pharmacists are unable to consult with patients who are filling new prescriptions or changing existing ones.
Walgreen’s Polzin said that, since prescriptions obviously are more complex than fast-food orders, pharmacists and technicians will be on hand to consult with the patient.
“Walgreens has built its reputation on employing the highest-caliber pharmacists, and we will continue to do so in the RxPress locations,” Polzin said.
Drive-through pharmacies have existed on the East Coast for quite some time.
“It is probably the function of real estate costs as to why L.A. is behind in building the drive-throughs,” said Philip J. Muldoon III, first vice president of research at McDonald & Co. Investments.
Several local retail experts welcome the drive-through trend.
“Drug stores have not been terribly innovative in the past,” said Richard Giss, a partner in the trade retail services groups at Deloitte & Touche LLP. “This is not only innovative but it should increase competition here.”
Steve Soboroff of Soboroff Partners in Santa Monica called the drive-through concept amazing, and praised Walgreen’s move to free-standing stores.
“The free-standings pharmacies, such as RxPress, are exciting as they will be able to go into areas where consumers are not served by mass merchandisers,” Soboroff said.
The car culture of L.A. is another reason RxPress was drawn to L.A.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Polzin said. “These are not hamburgers we are handing out. We offer no gimmicks at RxPress, just pure convenience and access to our pharmacists, something we feel that L.A. will welcome.”
RxPress has already opened locations in Downey and Rowland Heights in recent months. Another RxPress is being built in Arcadia and ground soon will be broken on additional RxPress stores in Torrance and San Dimas.