Independent Pharmacy vs. Chain Pharmacy: What are the Differences?
On average, patients visit the pharmacy twenty times per year, as opposed to only four visits per year to a primary care physician. With that many visits, and with health on the line, it is important to choose a pharmacy that suits your needs and eliminates headaches (both literally and figuratively).
However, there is no shortage of pharmacies to choose from; in fact, 90% of the population lives just two miles away from a pharmacy. So, to make your decision a little easier, and to give you a better understanding of the options available to you, we are going to explain the key differences between two types of pharmacies: independent and chain.
“Mom and Pop” vs. Big Box
Chain pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS line the streets of neighborhoods throughout the country. Nationally, these two companies account for roughly 40% of the prescription market, and their presence has grown steadily in recent years.
Despite the rise of big box pharmacies, though, independently owned ones aren’t going anywhere. In Texas, alone, independent pharmacies make up 53% of the state’s pharmacy market.
No matter how many street corners become occupied by Walgreens and the like, independent pharmacies are still able to thrive because they offer numerous benefits that their corporate counterparts cannot.
1. Customer Service
It’s no secret that locally owned businesses (of any kind) are more likely to have great customer service, and pharmacies are no exception.
Because independent pharmacies are not bound to the same bottom lines as corporate pharmacies, their pharmacists and staff have more time and energy to treat customers as individuals rather than numbers.
This is not just a sentiment, either. According to a study by Consumer Reports, over 50% of patients who filled out prescriptions at an independent pharmacy said that their pharmacist knew them by name – in contrast to only 14% at chain pharmacies.
Even the friendliest big box pharmacies struggle to replicate the level of customer service that independent pharmacies can simply because they are less involved at the community level.
It’s hard to deny the convenience factor that chain pharmacies provide. With a Walgreens on practically every street corner, how can an independent pharmacy possibly match their level of convenience?
The answer is by offering a variety of prescription pick-up and delivery options.
Independent pharmacies may be outnumbered in most states, and they may have tighter hours of operation windows, but they also have the flexibility and willingness to deliver medications to their community members – a flexibility that chains simply do not have.
Of course, not every independent pharmacy will offer free delivery, but many will. And you will have a hard time finding one that does not deliver at all.
If there is one benefit that big box pharmacies should be able to claim, it’s affordability.
Large corporations, by nature, have the advantage of size and scale, which in turn allows them to offer lower prices than their independent counterparts. But, interestingly enough, in the pharmacy industry size rarely equates to lower costs for patients.
Another insightful study from Consumer Reports found that independent pharmacies, on average, are able to (and often do) offer lower prices on medication than chains.
Pricing varies, of course, from pharmacy to pharmacy, but the willingness of most local pharmacies to have lower profit margins on medication sets them apart from the big boxes.
For many people, the price of medications is not a huge concern because their insurance absorbs most of the cost. But even with a good insurance plan, a local pharmacy is sometimes able to offer prices low enough to where purchasing out-of-pocket makes more sense.
Another misconception with locally owned businesses is that they are less efficient than their corporate counterparts. But when we look at independent pharmacies, this is not always true.
Consumer Reports also set out to test the differences in wait-times between independent and chain pharmacies, and the results were staggering.
Not only did they find that independent pharmacies have significantly lower wait times, but independent pharmacies also provided a much greater number of one-on-one consultations. In a world as confusing as healthcare, the importance of personal pharmacist interaction cannot be understated.
Another recent study found that independent pharmacies have been much more efficient at administering COVID-19 vaccines than chains.
Although the federal government partnered with CVS and Walgreens to distribute vaccines, two states which have turned to independent pharmacies for vaccine rollout – West Virginia and North Dakota – are reporting the highest percentage of vaccine administration.
The lack of efficiency by CVS and Walgreens to administer doses has been so poor that states like Maine have begun transferring the doses intended for these chains to independent pharmacies.
In theory, chain pharmacies should be able to have greater efficiency. But in reality, their decision to under-staff locations for the sake of saving money has resulted in the complete opposite.
Because chains appear to lack the necessary capacity for running their stores efficiently and administering doses to LTC facilities as promised, independent pharmacies have been able to step up and place their efficiency on full display.
The Bottom Line
The prioritization of bottom lines over patients can ultimately explain the advantages that independent pharmacies have over chains. At the end of the day, local pharmacies place community first, and the difference shows.
The next time you need a prescription or other pharmaceutical service, consider stopping by an independent pharmacy. They’ll be glad to see you.