Question about the pharmacy business

I have noticed non-hospital pharmacies, whether mom and pop or big chains like Walgreen’s, tend to have the bulk of their floor space devoted to non-medical items. These can be anything from food to magazines to electronics. When did this start in the pharmacy business? Is there any real financial advantage to this practice? And is this common outside the U.S. also?

I worked in a CVS in high school. I’d say that 90% (non-factual guesstimate) of our customers were there for non-medical or OTC items. The pharmacy is basically a convenience store (with a bunch of the stuff you can buy at a gas station, plus… baby food and deodorant and such). The idea is basically that you come in to get a prescription filled, and then kill time buying other “oh, I forgot I’m out of toilet paper” type stuff.

The old “corner drugstore” always sold a variety of things from candy, newspapers, magazines to perfumes and other sundries. Nearly all of them once had soda fountains, too. On a history page I have on facebook I recently posted a photo, ca. 1915, of a drugstore in my town. Much of the floor space was tables and chairs for the soda fountain.

Browne Pharmacy

A number of popular soft drinks (including Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, 7 Up, and Dr Pepper) trace their roots back to pharmacies, and were originally developed and marketed for some sort of medicinal property. So, the soda fountain at the pharmacy was originally intended, at least in part, to serve as a way to dispense medicine.

The sale of drugs was only a small part of a drugstore’s sales. They started out as general stores that began mixing up pills. Soda fountains were also common by the turn of the century.

If you look at the customers at most drugstores* today, you’ll see the pharmacy is only a small part of the business. That always was the way, especially a century ago when people did not take drugs unless they were sick.

*There’s one exception around here, where the only thing they sell is prescription drugs. But that’s a specialty drugstore and is used for odd prescriptions that no one else carries (e.g., nitroglycerine cream).

There may still be a couple of independent pharmacies that are hanging on until the owner retires, but around here, the last group of pharmacies that concentrated solely on prescriptions and health items like over the counter drugs and supplies was bought out and disappeared in the early 1980s.

As for financial advantages, I’m guessing it’s like gas stations with convenience stores and movie theaters that make most of their profits off the concession stand.

Are you saying those little independent places did not also sell perfume, greeting cards, magazines, comic books, chocolates, popsicles, assorted “gifts,” kites, squirt guns and balsa wood airplanes? Because all of our little independent drug stores did.

When I was a kid in the 1950s I used to go to a small neighborhood drugstore for comic books. My parents with good friends with the pharmacist (we were a sickly crew) and one time he gave me a little pocket camera. So I know that the front of the store was mostly non-medical items. It was a tiny store even by the standards of the 50s, though. I’d guess maybe 20’x50’, so 1000 square feet while a modern Walgreens might be as large as 25,000 sq. ft. Later I went to a somewhat larger one, because they had the best paperback and magazine racks that I could get to by walking. No local pharmacies had sofa fountains or lunch counters. I have no idea why, but I never knew they were common until much later.

Prescriptions were the draw to get people into the store, but back then people had to pay for them out of their own pockets. People saw doctors much less often than today because of that. And the whole modern pharmaceutical industry didn’t exist. I’d guess that most prescriptions were for penicillin or opiates.

Even earlier, back in the 1930s there was a huge industry battle over vitamins. Supermarkets wanted to sell them, but pharmacies claimed they were drugs and so they had to be chosen and controlled by pharmacists. Many states passed laws about this and it went back and forth to the courts for years before the supermarkets finally won. I didn’t know about this either until I read Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture, by Rima D. Apple. Even later you had to go to a drugstore for almost anything related to health. I do know that supermarkets didn’t have the huge sections of medicinal products they do today. That’s also because a big supermarket of the 50’s would fit inside a modern Rite Aid.

My experience was exactly like** Exapno’s**. Supermarkets didn’t have pharmacies; it was all independent stores. There was one next door to my father’s store which sold comic books, candy, magazines, newspapers, gifts, makeup, perfume, shampoo, OTC drugs, etc. It had a soda fountain, too. The went out of business to a pharmacy down the road (which never had a soda fountain). Eventually, my father bought the building. I loved going inside and seeing the soda fountain from behind the counter.

Lange Pharmacy in Schenectady was the one I was referring to before. It only does prescriptions – not even OTC drugs (though there is a small supply of the most common ones), but the store is tiny – the actual floor space in front is about 10 x 5 (though there’s a lot of room in back). They stay in business due to a reputation for good service, plus the ability to fill oddball prescriptions that most other pharmacies don’t stock.

When I was young, ( and even today) the independent drugstores in my area did sell non-medical items - but not nearly the variety that CVS/Walgreen’s etc sells. They sold greeting cards, perfume, cosmetics and hair products,first aid supplies, skin care items , tissues, toilet paper , feminine products ,paperback books and maybe a few toys. No cleaning products, detergents, snack food, cereal, beer,soda, milk ,appliances etc

Fun fact: despite the massive imbalance in floor space, 65% of Walgreens’ sales come from prescriptions (large PDF). If you’re looking through the graphs and reports, all the candy, beach towels, toilet paper, cosmetics, etc is called “Front End” or “FE.”

There are a surprising number of medical-stuff-only pharmacies in Chicago. Lots of little holes in the wall, some of them with old Rexall signs still outside.

Becker’s Professional Pharmacyis one. They’ve got prescriptions, ostomy supplies, wound care stuff and durable medical goods like walkers and wheelchairs and bedside commodes.

What I have always found interesting is that both our local CVS and Walgreens seem to do a huge business in selling tobacco products. I am not anti-tobacco but I always found it strange that a business devoted to keeping you healthy had 30’ of wall space behind the cashier devoted to cancer causing products.

CVS announced this morning that it will cease selling tobacco products in all stores by October.

What a shame. The zombies love them!

But I thought I would address something in the OP that wasn’t answered.

In my experience traveling in Europe, pharmacies there are pretty well focused on drugs (OTC and prescription), with neat, low-density shelving and knowledgeable assistants in lab coats.

And they keep terrible hours (last time in Helsinki it was quite a trek to find one still open at 9pm)

And they LOVE aspirin. You think we love our Tylenol variants here, you should see the Aspirin varieties there. They do have this fantastic cold & headache powder (aspirin, of course) that requires no water. Tear open one of the little packets and pour it in your mouth, it just fizzes and goes down easy. I stock up on that stuff every time I am there, since it is a godsend when traveling.

Why yes, I am quite good at digressing. Let me tell you about the mall in Dresden…

A bit off the topic: when I was a kid in the 60s, we would stop at a little drugstore after church for the Sunday paper and a comic book and candy bar for my brother and me. It had a real sofa fountain and sold all kind of sundry items. It also sold electronic items like transistor radios. One item I particularly remember was 4-track cartridge tape players and tapes, the forerunners of 8-track players.

I’ve always wondered if part the reason that drugstores have long sold a variety of items was because of blue laws. A few decades ago pharmacies (& maybe gas stations) were the only stores allowed to open on Sunday in a lot of the US.

Speaking of pharmacies and sodas:

Anyone have a source for on=ls-fashioned"Cherry Phosphate"?

1 oz cherry syrup
1 oz phosphoric acid
fill with soda water/carbonated waater

Got them mid-50’s a the YMCA in Dayton OH; have never seen since.

The trick here is a compounding pharmacy willing to sell small qtys of phosphoric acid USP

In Britain they just sell pharmaceutical drugs and health products ( excluding food ).

Health shops just sell healthy foods and a sprinkling of health supplements ( except for Holland & Barrett where the reverse is true ).