NEW YORK — A wide range of factors and "moving parts" will likely make 2012 a challenging year for pharmacy retailers as the economy, generic drugs and the dispute between Walgreens and Express Scripts figure prominently, analysts say.
Still, they say, various factors may serve to benefit drug stores and other retailers that operate pharmacies.
"2012 is probably the year with the most moving parts when you think about planning out your business … On the economic side, it's going to be another difficult year," Guggenheim Securities managing director John Heinbockel told Drug Store News. "We think it could be a little worse than 2011."
Economic factors, such as the payroll tax cut, likely will play a significant role in consumers' spending habits as they find themselves with less disposable income. According to recent published reports, Congress soon may extend the tax cut for the whole year, but Heinbockel said the cycling of the payroll tax holiday means less money in consumers' pockets this year than last year, while inflation in food and fuel costs, expenses and low savings could also create pressure.
That is likely to affect front-end sales for pharmacy retailers, but Heinbockel noted in a Guggenheim Securities report that they and also dollar stores tend to focus more on need-based goods — including prescription drugs — than discretionary goods. Thus, while market growth for need-based goods fell to 5% in 2011 and is likely to drop to 3% by the end of 2012, drug retailers won't require a healthy top-line to work in 2012.
But retail sales over the past few months already seem to indicate a slowdown in spending, with Guggenheim reporting that retail sales grew by 5.5% in December, compared with 5.6% in November and 6.1% in October. Among pharmacy retailers, Rite Aid reported strong comps for December, but both it and Walgreens have lately had relatively soft sales on the front end. "That tells me that the consumer is resilient, but hardly robust," Heinbockel said. "They're spending a bit, but not a lot."
Ultimately, what 2012 holds for the front end remains uncertain. "The front end is very much an open question," Barclay Equity Research senior research analyst Meredith Adler told Drug Store News. "I suspect that it gets better gradually over the course of the year, but we said that last year, and it didn't happen."
Generics are another area that could add pressure, but Heinbockel said it would be the good kind because while sales for generics tend to be lower, they generate higher profits. According to analysis by Credit Suisse, the generic wave could add 6% to 7% to retailers' earnings in 2012. The initial benefit from the generic version of Pfizer's cholesterol drug Lipitor (atorvastatin) is likely to be muted due the branded version retaining 30% of market share during the 180-day exclusivity period in which Ranbaxy Labs' generic version remains the sole competitor, with an expected reduction in generic-related benefit of 30 basis points for CVS, 70 basis points for Walgreens and 100 basis points for Rite Aid. In May, Ranbaxy's exclusivity period will end, allowing any generic drug maker that gets Food and Drug Administration approval to market its own version of Lipitor, which typically results in a significant discount for generic drugs as the market becomes commoditized.
But the biggest thing on people's minds is the Walgreens-ESI dispute. As soon as it became clear that there was no end in sight, competitors ranging from CVS to Rite Aid to local retailers scrambled to soak up the customers who would soon find themselves unable to get their prescriptions filled at Walgreens stores. "This is not going to be a normal year because as long as this Walgreens-ESI dispute is going on, there's going to be a lot of shift in market share that would not otherwise happen," Adler said.
In some markets, this could create opportunities for other types of retailers. Adler said that Walgreens controls 53% of the market in Milwaukee, without significant competition from other chains. "But there are supermarkets, and if they don't have pharmacies now, they will," Adler said. "I do think there's a lot more competition than people realize, but it is geographically varied. In Massachusetts, nobody worries about Walgreens not being in the network because CVS dominates; in the Pacific Northwest, Walgreens is big, but so are regional chains and supermarkets."
The proposed merger between ESI and Medco Health Solutions could complicate things further and force even more customers out of Walgreens stores, Adler said, but such a dramatic turn of events could also encourage the companies to come to an agreement.
All in all, however, pharmacy retailers won't have to do many things differently, Heinbockel said. "I don't think you change anything meaningfully because what you have is what you have, and right now that's a good thing because it's more defensive," he said.