OD'ing on convenience

In an era of corporate homogenization, where Wal-Marts have monopolized and bankrupted small businesses across America, it's nice to find a spot off that all-too-beaten path. In Orlando, we've got the 1200 block of East Colonial Drive, a quaint enclave of mostly Vietnamese-owned shops and restaurants with a real New York feel, especially on this chilly November morning.

"The people around here, they know me," says Jelani Omari, proprietor of the Cobbler's Cove shoe-repair store, and one of the few non-Vietnamese shopkeepers. There's a real sense of community here: The different stores, he says, refer customers to each other. The block, quite simply, thrives on its diversity.

Want to see it? Better hurry. Last year, the nation's largest pharmacy chain, CVS, moved to buy and bulldoze the block in favor of a megastore. That would make four drug stores in less than a quarter-mile, with an Eckerd's across the street, CVS-subsidiary ProCare a half-block west, and a pharmacy inside a Publix to the east.

Due to design problems, the city's planning board put CVS's plans on hold last month, but the enclave is hardly safe. CVS has appealed the ruling, and even if they lose, the company will likely revamp its plans sufficiently to gain city approval.

Omari doesn't see much hope. "To be honest," he says, "I think everyone's going to have to up and move. CVS is going to come in -- that's money." His neighbor, the owner of a trophy store, said he was getting out. "I don't really care anymore," says the neighbor.

Indeed, this scene is playing out all over Florida, with drug stores abandoning strip malls and establishing stand-alone stores with drive-throughs at virtually every major intersection. It's not unusual to see competing stores across the street from one another, as if poised for some kind of death match.

"They're changing the culture of the block," Omari mutters. "I'm for the growth of this town, but not at the expense of redundancy. CVS coming over here is going to change the whole look, the feel. It's not going to feel the same."

So what's behind the insurgence into downtowns? Demand. "Drug stores," says National Association of Chain Drug Stores spokesman Dan Kidder, "are just adapting to what the customer wants."

The trends fueling this growth might indeed say as much about American society as the greedy ambitions of the drug store industry. With consumption of prescription drugs -- and drug store profits -- at an all-time high, and convenience valued above all else, these oversized Quicky-Marts (let's call them what they are) are becoming an ever-present dot on our landscape -- and frequently at a neighborhood's expense.

Omari's block isn't the first to be sacrificed to the gods of convenience, and it won't be the last. Last year, drug store chains topped the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of top 11 dangers to historic preservation. Communities from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Georgia all have fought the chains' coming, with limited success. Most times, Goliath's sheer size trumps David's fervor. But not always.

A neighborhood in Tampa protested a proposed Walgreens in the shadow of a historic water tower and won at least a temporary victory. "We feel that the existing seven stores within three miles of the tower property are more than enough to meet the needs of the neighborhood," said protester Michelle Geisler.

Since their appearance on that list, says National Trust spokes-man Gary Cozel, drug store chains have grown much more open to negotiation with the neighborhoods. "We are making good progress with drug store chains in getting them to respect the homes and historic places that are on the list," he says, but adds: "That, by no means, implies the threat is over."

Three of the top four chains -- Walgreens, Eckerd and Rite Aid -- have promised not to destroy any more historical landmarks. CVS, on the other hand, has made no such commitment, a fact underlined by a comment a company lawyer made to the Orlando Sentinel about the block at Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue. "We are not attacking or undermining diversity in this area," John Howell said. "There is nothing particularly ethnic or cultural or historic about these buildings."

Omari disagrees. "As for this historical business," he says, "a shoe-repair business has been [in this location] since 1942. That's the reason I purchased it." And it's hard to imagine how Howell can say there is nothing ethnic or culturally valuable. With a growing number of businesses that extend out in three directions, that intersection is the core of a retail and restaurant district that employs and caters to Central Florida's expanding Southeast Asian population.

That prominence may be the reason that the block is caught in the crosshairs now. "The No.1 deciding factor [in choosing a drug store location]," says Walgreens spokesman Carol Hively, "would be finding the very best intersection in the neighborhood. In most cases something will be torn down."

The cookie-cutter nature of the stores irks many, especially when they infiltrate eccentric or unusually designed neighborhoods. When sufficiently pressured, the chain will alter the prefabricated look and try to blend a little better, says John Ransom, who tracks the health industry for Raymond James.

"I don't like the way it looks more than anybody else," he says, "but Walgreens is a consumer company. People have to yell loud enough -- otherwise, they'll keep building boxes."

They can yell, but so long as the industry's profits are up, no one appears to be listening. Here, Orlando's planning board made it clear that CVS won't have to conform to be approved. The CVS store was shot down only because it was too small: To fit into the urban area, the board ruled, CVS would have to up its square footage.

CVS, which already has a whopping 4,082 stores nationwide, plans to increase its fold by 400 to 450 stores this year. Eckerd wants to open 150 stores, and Walgreens wants to double its store count from 3,000 to about 6,000 by 2010. "Today about 50 percent of the population lives within five miles of a Walgreens," Dave Bernauer, Walgreens chief executive officer told shareholders this spring. "Someday we'd like to see 80 percent within one mile."

Most of these new stores aren't really new; they're moves. Eckerd spokeswoman Tami Alderman, for instance, says the chain will build only seven new stores; the rest will simply be moved out of strip malls and into free-standing, intersection-hogging buildings.

And the drugstores peddle far more than prescriptions. They sell booze, cigarettes, frozen foods, milk, cheese, videos -- out West, some even sell guns. Sort of an all-in-one deal, reminiscent perhaps of Disney or Wal-Mart-style capitalism: stop in, get everything you need here, and no reason to go anywhere else.

Supermarkets are responding in kind, putting pharmacies next to the fruit aisle. The theory, obviously, is that customers want convenience -- and it's working. CVS's profits have increased 15.5 percent this year; Walgreens boasted a 21.5 percent profit margin (the average Fortune 500 company's is roughly 8 percent).

In fact, Ransom notes, the highest profits don't come from drug sales, but from the photo lab. "The average [nonprescription] sale," he says, "is only about $9. If they could move that up, they could increase profits."

With that in mind, the chains began abandoning the strip malls in the early '90s and moving out on their own (more space equals more money). The chains move in next to each other because the demographics are good. "An intersection that's good for one drug store will be good for another," says Walgreens' Hively.

To placate those too lazy to park and walk inside, many of these stand-alones now have their own drive-through windows. Though Internet and mail-orders pharmacies threaten the drug stores' monopoly on convenience, Ransom says, people just don't feel comfortable buying from these unseen entities. Just in case they do, however, the big chains have their own sites, from which you can get everything from shampoo to Viagra delivered straight to your door.

Needless to say, gone are the days when your pharmacist actually knew you by name.

Viagra is the most notorious of the new "lifestyle drugs" fueling the recent boom in drug sales. Whereas people used to go to the drug store only if, say, they had the flu, medications today run rampant. You could be on Claritin for allergies, Zoloft for panic attacks, Prozac for depression, Accutane for acne, or Ritalin for attention deficit disorder. Moreover, thanks to a friendly Republican Congress, the pharmaceutical industry has streamlined the Food and Drug Administra-tion's approval process and relaxed the rules on direct-to-consumer pitches, fueling an increase in pharmaceutical advertising costs that are now at $1.4 billion and growing.

Another fact: As the population ages and more people live longer, drug sales go up. The industry is laughing all the way to the bank, with sales expected to climb 25 percent to $4 billion by 2004.

Drug sales still comprise 52 percent of drug store profits, so the increased sales are quite literally driving the industry's expansion. Unfortunately for Omari, the latest boom will one day run him out of his shop. No one's sure exactly when, but it will happen.

Some fellow shop-owners have approached Omari about moving all of their shops together into another area, in effect transporting the whole block. "Everyone wants to stay close to each other," Omari says. Though nothing's set in stone, it's sort of the silver lining in these grayest of clouds.

Omari describes himself as an optimist, but as he speaks, his tone hints at bitterness and defeatism. And with good reason: The clock marking the block's destruction is ticking. Along with many, many others, Omari will grieve its departure.

That is, truly, the cost of convenience.


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