Here come the drugstores

June 15, 1996|By Antero Pietila

A STRETCH OF York Road in Govans, near the intersection with Woodbourne Avenue, illustrates an important trend in Baltimore retailing. Rite Aid has long had a big store at one corner. Now, its rivals Revco and CVS are feverishly building even bigger stores nearby.

All these companies are on a huge expansion binge in Baltimore. Rite Aid, America's biggest drugstore chain, operates 54 branches here now but plans to add 40 more by the end of next year. Revco also has resumed aggressive expansion in the city after its takeover by Rite Aid fell through earlier this year. It plans to add five new locations to its 21 by the end of 1997.

All this leads to a question: How many drugstores will Baltimore need?

Wrong question.

The big new stores these chains are opening -- often in free-standing buildings with ample parking -- no longer are traditional drugstores. They stock everything from pharmacy items and cosmetics to small appliances (sometimes including portable television sets) and frozen dinners, bread and dairy products. Some offer one-hour photo finishing. Others have business service counters and liquor departments.

In recent decades, all the big department stores and dozens of other retailers have abandoned Baltimore. Many neighborhoods are under-served even by supermarkets. The drug chains recognize this and are scrambling to fill the void with outlets that are comprehensive enough to be modern-day general stores.

Just how drugstores are being transformed to something quite different will be underscored July 9 when Rite Aid opens its new emporium on the ground floor of a Howard Street landmark building that once was the Hecht Co.'s main department store. At 15,000 square feet it will by far the biggest of the chain's more than 2,760 stores nationwide. It contains all kinds of novel design elements. Instead of fluorescent lights it has upscale light fixtures.

Growing stores

The average new stores contain 10,500-12,700 square feet of floor space, which is one-fourth more than they had just a few years ago.

A key reason for the drug chains' push into Baltimore and other big cities is that they have pretty much saturated the suburbs. Many big cities are so poorly served by retailers that they offer excellent growth potential. Moreover, since many residents lack transportation, these stores can count on a veritable captive clientele.

While these bigger drugstores will never develop into supermarkets, they are blurring the category differences.

''There is a serious shortage of supermarkets in many inner cities throughout America,'' a recent nationwide survey by Washington-based Public Voice for Food & Health Policy concluded.

''Where there are supermarkets in low-income urban neighborhoods, they tend to be smaller and carry fewer products than those in suburban and middle- or upper-income areas,'' the report added.

There are some understandable explanations for this. Supermarkets may not want to invest in big stores in impoverished areas because monthly sales are very uneven, peaking on days when food stamps and other public assistance becomes available. Inner-city stores often are also more expensive to operate, not necessarily because of security reasons but because they need to draw far larger numbers of shoppers to reach comparable sales and therefore need more personnel.

The failure of the F & M chain last year proved that not all big drugstores are guaranteed to succeed. But the phenomenal expansion of Rite Aid, Revco and CVS shows they have found Baltimore a very lucrative market.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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