Article and Photo by Jheanel Walters
The soft chime of the bell as the door opens and outgoing customers squeeze to let others in is a familiar scene for the pharmacists behind the counter of Sure Drugs in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Still thriving after 29 years of operation, the new owner worries whether the store’s strong local following will enable it to survive growing economic pressures and strong competition.
Pharmacies’ sales have slowed considerably in the last year or more, according to the latest 10K report of Rite Aid, a national chain that is Sure Drug’s main competition. Although it is one of many independent drugstores in the area, Sure Drugs has not been slowed, says supervising pharmacist Jay Karapurkur.
While Bed-Stuy has been attracting homeowners and young professionals in the last few years, it still has the reputation of being one of New York City’s most dangerous and poorest neighborhoods. Bed-Stuy is in the 79th and 81st precincts, whose CompStats show a dramatic decline in the crime rates from 1990. But criminal activity for 2012 is higher than last year, in spite of the constant police patrols on certain streets. The American Community Surveys lists 14 percent of Bed-Stuy’s non-institutionalized population as without health insurance, a problem for most independent pharmacies that rely on third-party payers for a majority of their revenue.
Neighborhood drugstores not only face competition from other independent pharmacies, but vie for customers against the big chains – Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid and the powerhouse that is Walmart – and now the popular mail order for prescription drugs.
The store is a member of the CVS/Caremark Pharmacy group and says it accepts all forms of insurance, including Medicare Part D Plans and AARP plans, an advantageous move for the company since American Community Surveys estimated that over 50 percent of those in Bed-Stuy with health insurance have a public plan.
The store even has its own Diabetic Care Center, in addition to selling health and beauty aids, vitamins and natural products and other everyday items.
Now 65, Karapurkur has been a pharmacist for almost 30 years and is licensed in three states – New York, Maryland and Delaware. He operated his own drugstore for 25 years and moved to Walgreens for the last 10 years before he started working at Sure Drugs as a favor to former owner and friend, Suresh Wattamwar. The latter retired in July earlier this year, selling the store to a corporation that Karapurkur declined to name.
“It’s a different feeling working in a small pharmacy or your own, compared to working at a place like Walgreens. It’s not as structured as the chain stores; chains have a rigid structure you have to follow,” he says, while assisting a customer.
Janet Munford, a long-time Sure Drug’s customer, isn’t comfortable with changes but says she has no plans to switch providers. “For over 17 years now, that’s how long I’ve been a customer here. I never go into the Rite Aid and I don’t plan to.” She adds, “Sure is neighborhood people and I need my medicine so I’m here, and will be here, every month.”
In the cross-section of the commercial strips of Ralph Avenue and Fulton Street, the pharmacy has an advantage over many competitors in that area of Bed-Stuy, which has nine other pharmacies, two of them Rite Aid branches. One Rite Aid sits directly across from Sure Drugs and on the next street is Rio Drugs, which based on the foot traffic observed, poses very little problem.
On a typical day, there is a constant stream of mothers with young children and elderly in and out of Sure Drugs, while across at Rite Aid, most people enter for the cheaper general household or food items the store offers, and only a few customers can be seen at the pharmacy counter.
Most small business owners are worried about the presence of chains in their community, but not Karapurkur, who calmly points out, “Most of our customers are longtime customers, so Rite Aid doesn’t affect our business as much as one would think.”
The Rite Aid across the street has been there for 14 years and the one a few blocks away is as old as Sure Drugs. According to ReferenceUSA, Sure Drugs hauled in $549, 000 in 2011 and spent over $90,000 on supplies, payroll, lease, utilities and other expenses. Rite Aid’s store revenue as of June 2012 is also recorded at over $1.6 million.
For Melinda Huff-Bones, the choice isn’t left up to her when it comes to her insurance; when it is her choice, she chooses convenience over all other factors.
“For prescriptions, my work forces us to use mail order, which I hate. With mail orders, your doctor writes the script for a one year supply and you get three months’ supply at a time. You pay $12 for the three months’ supply from mail order. Sounds great, but when you have to pay $60 for three months of supply when you are used to paying $25 a month, it’s a bigger hit at once. As for any other pharmaceutical needs, I get those at Walmart because it is a one-stop shop.”
With reviews of the pharmacies in Bed-Stuy on the local online Patch network, Karapurkur asserts the store has no need for advertising. “We just provide good service and continue our free home deliveries, so there is no need for business to not be as steady as it’s always been,” he says.
Rite Aid, on the other hand, has advertisements in all areas of media and promotions for their wellness+ loyalty program, drive-through for prescription pick-up, a one-hour photo center and the GNC store-within-Rite Aid store. Sure Drugs is instead betting on word of mouth and neighborhood loyalty for its continued success.
And since its new ownership, there have been new ideas and plans to eventually expand the business and open other Sure Drugs stores in and possibly outside of Brooklyn. Karapurkur says he has faith the business is not in any danger of being closed any time soon.