Seattle's wellness revolution

In a drugstore market dominated by national chains, the key to Seattle's pharmaceutical future lies beyond candy and aspirin.
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Rite Aid's Wellness-centric re-launch.

In a drugstore market dominated by national chains, the key to Seattle's pharmaceutical future lies beyond candy and aspirin.

Would you like a good-night story, children? The complex history of retail pharmacies in Seattle will put you to sleep in no time. Enough zany characters to populate a zoo, and the biggest casualty is a 500-pound gorilla known to its friends as PayLess Drugs. 

The lone local survivor, Bartells, with about 650 stores, is doing battle with national giants Walgreen's and Rite Aid. (The third national player, CVS, doesn't have a significant presence in the Northwest.) 

Freestanding drug stores are as ubiqitous as supermarkets, and with good reason. Sooner or later, everybody needs toilet paper and everybody needs a presciption filled. Or at least a bottle of aspirin. The neighborhood pharmacy, like the neighborhood grocery, is a lumbering relic compared to the chain stores, and the biggest competition these days is in the so-called Wellness aisles.  

The Rite Aid store at Third and Vine provides an example of this battleground. It's just one of almost 5,000 Rite Aid stores around the country; the company had revenues of $25 billion last year. The Belltown store is a handsome, two-story concrete building that once housed a printing plant, and was a prime target for residential development. But the parcel was spared when Wood Partners bowed to neighborhood pressure and agreed to build a 26-story apartment tower on the quarter block to the north instead. 

Given a new lease on life, Rite Aid promptly remodeled, and announced a Grand Reopening devoted to what it's calling Wellness Plus. Most Rite-Aid stores in Washington are big enough to have several dozen feet of shelfspace stocked with liquor, but booze, it seems, is no longer where the money is. 

Wellness Plus includes over 2,500 high-margin, store-branded products: fitness equpment, organic and gluten-free foods. In additionon to the traditional beauty products, cosmetics, fragrances, antacids, laxatives, nutrition drinks and hair coloring kits, Rite Aid offers pharmacists trained to give immunizations and text messages that alert you as soon as your presciption has been automatically refilled. Diabetes management is an industry all its own, in person and online. Large-type prescription fonts, too. And then it gets woo-woo: vitamins for your pets, copper and magnetic bracelets, homeopathic medicines and organic foods.

It's not just Rite Aid, though. Trader Joe's has long had its own line of vitamins and supplements; Whole Foods devotes more shelf-space to organic soaps than to salad dressings. The Italians have known that this is fertile ground for decades; they call it Benessere, well-being. All those Groupons for facials and spa treatments fall into the same general category, a sort of benign (and affordable) narcissism.

Bartell Drugs — now run by the grandson of the founder — maintains its strong local roots, and its executives know that the "drugstore" market is changing. The stores feature the Bartell Beauty Guarantee: "Buy it, like it, or bring it back!" Just last week, it was revealed that the Bartell family has acquired an interest in two commercial buildings just south of Safeco Field, in the SoDo stadium-&-entertainment district. But they haven't given up completely on their historic lines of business: In addition to a new emphasis on wellness, they continue to promote two traditional, high-margin product categories — cosmetics and candy.

There's nothing wrong with the world that can't be repelled with Purell or soothed with Bio Oil. And if you're a 50-year-old retail chain like Rite Aid, you gotta go for the Elixir of Youth.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).