Rite Aid benefits from customer loyalty, investment

Company's stock has risen nearly 18% since Thursday morning

Rite Aid reported a $123.1 million profit for fourth quarter 2013 and $118.1 million for the fiscal year — its first profitable year since 2007 — amid greater generic drug penetration and retention of at least three-quarters of the customers who switched over to the chain during the dispute between Walgreens and pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, among other factors.

The factors that helped fuel the nearly $62 million profit the company reported in third quarter 2013 have continued to hold, which means the 4,623-store chain has put itself on track for strong future growth, which will no doubt be helped along by the debt refinancing the company finished in February.

Wall Street certainly thinks so: Rite Aid's stock, which in recent years had frequently hovered around $1 per share and sank to 22 cents per share on March 6, 2009, opened at $1.98 Thursday and reached a high of $2.33 Friday.

But there's something deeper going on than just generic drugs or competitors having problems: Rite Aid's foundations are getting stronger too. This is evident from the company's investments in its business, such as the latest update to the Wellness store format, which will be used as the template for "virtually all" of the 400 remodels scheduled for fiscal year 2014, and the expansion of the NowClinic "virtual clinic" service to 58 stores.

Key to Rite Aid's success has been the Wellness+ loyalty card program. During the Walgreens-ESI dispute, the chain worked hard to sign Walgreens customers who moved their prescriptions to Rite Aid up for the program, which today boasts nearly 25.2 million active members.

In addition, the company has seen good returns on its investment in the Wellness stores, whose front-end same-store sales are 3% higher than those in the non-Wellness stores; the company had already observed the stores' comps trending higher than those of the older stores early on in the program, as well as seeing stronger performance in those Wellness stores already staffed with Wellness Ambassadors.

With Rite Aid's executives telling Wall Street analysts Thursday that they expected to retain most of the customers gained from the Walgreens-ESI dispute, it's clear that the company is building itself some serious customer loyalty, something that has been crucial to its triumphs and will continue to be in the future.

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