February 23, 2003

Local Rxs say they've already fought Wal-Mart battle

By Thomas Wilson
STAR Staff

   When Wal-Mart moved into Trinidad, Colo., five independent pharmacists closed their shops because they could not compete with the retail giant.
   Could the same thing happen in Elizabethton? Two independent pharmacies say they don't feel that threat.
   At Union Prescription Shop on Bemberg Road, the independent owner and pharmacist, Jim Anderson, has filled prescriptions for 32 years. He said the pharmacy had competed with the existing Wal-Mart pharmacy since the retailer opened its doors in Elizabethton in 1988. He also did not believe a Wal-Mart Supercenter would drive out or even seriously affect most independent businesses in Elizabethton and Carter County.
   "For us it would be a mixed blessing," he said of the Supercenter development.
   To maintain a competitive edge against the conglomerates, the independent business had to carve out a niche of products or services large retailers did not provide, he said. Delivering prescriptions and providing the personal service local customers came to expect were two major draws to Union, he said.
   "We do things Wal-Mart can't do and we keeping doing things Wal-Mart doesn't do so well," said Anderson. "I think all the mom-and-pop businesses will continue to compete as always and that has begun already. They are doing something better than the big guys do."
   Still, Anderson added that he was leery of what a Supercenter with a grocery store might bear on some existing retailers, particularly grocery stores. "They are plenty big enough for me," he said.
   Lingerfelt Drug Center on East Elk Avenue has filled prescriptions and said "howdy neighbor" to local residents for decades. The Wal-Mart Supercenter development did not pose the threat to downtown Elizabethton many people might think, according to Diana Lingerfelt.
   "I don't think it will affect downtown at all," said Lingerfelt who felt the niche-market stores that line East Elk Avenue exist outside the sweep of a Supercenter market.
   However, Lingerfelt added that while she loved shopping at Wal-Mart, she also had concerns regarding another competing grocery store opening in the Elizabethton/Carter County market.
   "I like the Wal-Mart," she said, "but I think the last thing Elizabethton needs is another grocery store. I am afraid it is going to put the little man out of business."
   Lingerfelt like Anderson, did not believe a Supercenter posed a major threat to local pharmacies. Customers with prescriptions most often present a TennCare or a private insurance company plan when the submit their prescriptions. TennCare recipients pay the same effective rate, and most insurance plans based on health maintenance or preferred provider plans are based on capitated rates for prescription drugs.
   "They are going to pay the same no matter what pharmacy you go to," she said.
   Lingerfelt said the most irritating part of superstore shopping to her was the need for a good pair of walking shoes to traipse the thousands of square feet.
   "It feels like you walk forever," she said.