Drugstore giant CVS/pharmacy has just dipped its first toe into Washington state with a 12,500-square-foot store in Renton.
The Pacific Northwest is the last major U.S. market where the Rhode Island-based company was not present, said Hanley Wheeler, the company’s senior vice president of field operations. “We consider it a growth market,” he said in an interview at the store, which had an official ribbon-cutting Monday.
Two more store openings are planned for November in Poulsbo and Burien.
Seattle will see its first store, in Wallingford, next summer. Wheeler said his people are working on finding or developing other locations, so more stores are likely.
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The Renton store will also be one of the first CVS locations not to carry tobacco products.
CVS drew headlines and accolades, including from the White House, last February when it said it would quit selling tobacco items despite the $2 billion a year in sales. But it set itself a deadline of Oct. 1 for quitting at existing stores.
CVS is the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain in the country after Walgreens, which as of June 30 had 134 stores in Washington. Walgreens entered the Puget Sound area in the 1990s.
Rite Aid, another major national chain, also arrived in the 1990s by acquiring Oregon-based ThriftyPayless.
CVS will also face Bartell Drugs, an entrenched local pharmacy chain that’s run by the grandson of its founder and has 62 locations in the Puget Sound region.
But the pie for health-care products seems to be growing, along with baby boomers’ medical needs: Washington’s gross sales for drug and health stores totaled $1.4 billion in the first quarter of 2014, up 8 percent, according to the state Department of Revenue.
In comparison, statewide gross sales for the entire retail industry, which is still challenged by the lingering effects of the financial crisis, grew just 0.8 percent.
CVS’ Wheeler acknowledged the force of local contenders. “It’s a very competitive market,” he said. “Bartell’s is a very strong drugstore competitor and they do a very good job.”
Bartell Drugs, which was founded in 1890 and has 1,700 employees, has eagerly adopted national trends such as opening care clinics within its pharmacies. It has three and is evaluating whether to open more.
It also embraces some of Seattle’s quirkiness: When local folk in South Lake Union said they’d like beer on tap at the drugstore Bartell was opening there, the company set up a growler station. “The first day we opened, there was a line around the block,” said Helen Neville, senior vice president of marketing for Bartell Drugs.
“We believe that we know our customers and neighbors better than anybody else can,” she said. “Because we know the area so well we can spend the time to get those stores right.”
One key advantage of CVS, besides size, is the fact that its parent, CVS Caremark, has a huge pharmacy-benefit management division, which handles prescription benefits for employers. Having a physical location allows people who have a CVS Caremark plan to interact face to face with a CVS pharmacist, said spokesman Michael DeAngelis.
Setting up shop in the remote Pacific Northwest comes with its logistical challenges. There are no stores in Oregon nor Idaho. A team had to be dispatched from Omaha, Neb., to help train the Renton store’s 30 employees, Wheeler said.
He said Renton was the first Washington stop because all things fell into place there, from finding the right piece of land to working with the community and permitting.
At the opening ceremony, Renton Mayor Denis Law said he was “very excited” that “we’re going to be the first city in the state to have a CVS pharmacy.”
Leigh Lacey, of Kent, visited the store Monday with his wife, Nancy. They said they were familiar with the brand because of trips they had made to visit friends in New England.
“I’m glad that they’re here,” Lacey said. “More competition.”