In the city, big pharma’s got competition

C.O. Bigelow Chemists on Sixth Avenue has been serving the Greenwich Village community since 1838. Photo: Michael DeSantis
Independently owned apothecaries cater to clientele

If you own an independent pharmacy in Manhattan, odds are you’ll be competing with a CVS, Walgreens or Rite Aid no more than a block or two away.

That competition has contributed to the downfall of independently-owned pharmacies such as the Battery Park Pharmacy and University Chemists in downtown Manhattan, both of which closed this spring. Surviving independent pharmacies in the city have leaned on a mix of innovation, individuality and customer service to maintain their presence and overcome challenges posed by corporate giants.

Multiple pharmacists have said they’re forced to overcome contracts between chain stores and insurance companies where consumers have to get service from a chain pharmacy unless they want to pay the full price of medication.

“Which is not right,” Abby Fazio, the owner of New London Pharmacy, said. “We are trying to fight in New York State. Bottom line, the patient should go where they want to go and where they feel more comfortable. Because chains are so big and they have so much power versus a small independent pharmacy, it’s very hard and competitive.”

Fazio isn’t afraid of the competition, however. She’s led New London Pharmacy, a Chelsea location on Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, to hire experts to oversee each department the store offers: prescription, cosmetics, bath and body, surgical care, over-the-counter products, nutrition and website. Those specialists will then work together to ensure customers get what they need. Fazio used the relationship between her prescription and nutrition sections as an example.

“The nutritionist helps the pharmacist in the sense that, ‘Yes, this patient has diabetes but let’s talk to him also about what he’s eating and his exercise and what to watch out for and how to inject himself and how to test himself,’” Fazio said. “This way, whoever comes in and has a question knows they can speak to that expert. That’s something I feel we offer that nobody else does.”

C.O. Bigelow Chemists, a Greenwich Village apothecary in business since 1838, also boasts a large storefront to complement its pharmacy. Alec Ginsberg, son of owner Ian Ginsberg, said having a significant retail business is a necessity for independently-owned pharmacies.

“That’s why in New York City you really don’t see that many independents anymore,” Ginsberg said. “It’s because you can’t really survive just on the dispensing.”

The pharmacy, on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street, sells products in skincare, makeup, bath and body, hair, fragrance and men’s grooming.

Ginsberg feels the largest factor that separates C.O. Bigelow Chemists from a CVS or Rite Aid is that their pharmacies are in separate businesses.

“We’re going the other direction, away from convenience like those guys are focusing,” Ginsberg said. “We’ll let them play the drive-thru game as long as they want to. We’re in customer care. We want to take our time with every patient, answer all their questions.”

Ginsberg said the pharmacy tries to individually educate its customers in addition to serving them, pointing to the difficulties of understanding how the health care system in America works. Part of that education is honesty.

“Our mantra is ‘Genuine, honest, trustworthy,’ Ginsberg said. “So, to put it plainly, we don’t bullshit anyone. If you come in and ask a question, you’re going to get an honest answer, whether it’s one you like or you don’t like. We’re here to educate the people as much as we can.”

As far as service goes, Cordette Pharmacy in Midtown has a policy of treating its customers well. Jay Patel, the pharmacist of the West 39th Street business, said he tries to go out of his way to treat any customer like a member of his own family.

He said, if possible, he’ll leave the pharmacy desk to walk the aisles as many as 100 times a day to check in on customers and see if they have any questions for him. He expects his staff to do the same.

“Every time there’s a person walking up and down the aisle and if one of my staff doesn’t see him and doesn’t address him, I get irritated,” Patel said. “I will walk out there and address [the customer].”

The customer service and care that independently-owned pharmacies offer is likely the biggest advantage they hold over chain stores. Some pharmacists say that the lack of personal attention customers are given at a large chain have benefitted them.

“They actually do us a favor,” Patel said. “Their customers who don’t get the service [from big chain stores] come here where they do get attended to.”

Part of that is due to the amount of staff behind the pharmacy counter. C.O. Bigelow Chemists has four full-time pharmacists working at one time, while New London Pharmacy has at least six.

“I hear chain stores only have two people working to fill 400 prescriptions,” Fazio said. “You need at least six people minimum.”

Ginsberg said he has four working at the same time in order to accomplish more tasks than one or two people can handle.

“So when it’s just one of you, you have to focus on checking the prescriptions and getting them out all day long,” Ginsberg said. “With us, we can have one or two guys doing that while the other ones are working on immunizations, running through med-lists with people, doing medication therapy management.”

Fazio, Ginsberg and Patel all value customer care above everything else while continuing to come up with methods to stay ahead of corporate pharmacies, be it multiple departments, free delivery, more efficient division of labor or familial values. Those are what got them this far, and it may be what keeps them successful in a corporate-dominated city.