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All in the family pharmacy

04-Nov-2007: Robby Jones didn't want to go to work for someone else after the 1999 shutdown of Charlotte's Giant Genie grocery where he had operated the pharmacy for 17 years.

"I'd have corporate making my decisions, and I wasn't ready to go back to that," said Jones, a pharmacist since graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1977. "I wanted to bring my staff with me, the staff that took care of my customers."

Eight years later, Jones' Giant Genie pharmacy has survived the growth of chain stores and discounters to become one of the city's largest independent drugstores. The business, which he owns with wife Leslie, has expanded twice at its site at 5123 South Blvd. and has about 25 employees. It offers products ranging from hard-to-find and customized medications to home health care equipment.

Jones' wife, two children and other relatives all work in the family business, and service is more than a buzzword: Last Monday evening, he stopped by a customer's house on the way home to deliver her prescriptions.

In an interview, Jones, 53, talked about competition, lessons learned and expansion plans. Questions and answers are edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. All the big-name chains have stores near yours, and giant retailers such as Wal-Mart also are in the prescription business. How do you compete?

Having them around is a good thing, not a bad thing. They are a referral source and a help, not a hindrance. The other pharmacists call us. They know we have hard-to-find items and services that they don't.

Q. So what is your biggest challenge?

What's hard today is dealing with what the government and insurance companies are doing to pharmacies. They control our reimbursements and client base. If all of a sudden 40 percent of our people have to go to mail order (prescriptions), that's a problem for the others, too.

Q. At Giant Genie, you leased the space for the pharmacy, and you owned that business. What is different about running the full operation?

In the food store, the only thing we sold was the drugs. Even the cough-and-cold section belonged to the food store. We had to become experts in merchandising, what you need to have in the store to bring in walk-in traffic. We had to diversify into other niches such as home health care.

Q. What's an example of a product that didn't work for you?

To begin with, we had all these nice, expensive cards that never sold. Now we have greeting cards that people come from the other side of town to get, cards that range from 35 cents to a dollar. People love nice 35-cent cards.

Q. Is it more expensive to shop at an independent?

The pharmacies really don't have anything to do with what people are paying out of pocket. Most of the time, the prescription price is already set by some third party.

Q. At one point, you had four pharmacies, two in Giant Genie groceries and two in medical office buildings. Talk about why that expansion didn't work out.

We expanded too early. I wish we'd been able to concentrate on our main store. One of the reasons people come to an independent pharmacy is they're familiar with the people who own it, the staff, the kinds of services. If I spread myself so thin ... I lose that.

Q. Now you're looking at opening a second store, maybe in Huntersville or Fort Mill. What's right about that move?

There's a lot of growth there. A lot of our customers have shifted to those areas, and there aren't a lot of independents.

Source: Charlotte Observer

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