This week, I visited one of West Orange's oldest shops, the West Orange Pharmacy, at 443 Main St. I spoke to William Carlucci, Jr., pharmacist, former co-owner and son of the pharmacy's founder, William Carlucci, Sr.
Carlucci, Sr. started the business in 1947 as a single-pharmacist shop. His twin sons, William Jr. and Robert, started working at the pharmacy at age fourteen. Both boys later became pharmacists and took over the business in 1977.
William and Robert enjoyed working together, but since it was only the two of them, they could never take time off together. That all changed when they brought in a relief pharmacist in 1991, Lenny Stefanelli. In 1999, Lenny became the brothers' third partner. And in 2008, Lenny bought the entire business. Since then, William and Robert have been semi-retired, working only part-time and playing lots of golf … together.
What I expected to find was a mom-and-pop shop, business humming along, due to loyal customers and its long history in West Orange. But in talking with William, I learned a very different story.
The West Orange Pharmacy is the only independently-owned pharmacy left downtown, whereas 25 years ago, there were "easily twelve or fourteen independently-owned pharmacies in the area," William said. "Now there's Eckert, two CVS stores, ShopRite and RiteAid ... and us."
I asked how they managed to stay in business with all the big chain stores coming in. "Service," William said. "We've always based our business on service. We offer free delivery and we try to help out the seniors. If they need milk or stamps along with their prescription, we’ll deliver that, too."
The pharmacy serves more than 300 families across the street at 430 Main St. the senior citizen housing complex.
"One thing we have refused to do is to have a [phone tree] system, where you have to press one for this, or press two for that. We won't do it. When you call here, you get a person," he said.
But William said he sees the end of the business coming. He says that mail-order prescription service is what's hurting the pharmacy business the most. Customers can get a 90-day supply from the mail-order companies for the same co-pay they pay at his pharmacy for a 30-day supply.
"We can't offer that and we can't compete with that. I don't blame customers, either. Why should they pay three times the price for the same prescription?" he said. William also told me that Costco is retailing diabetic supplies at less than what he can pay wholesale.
My husband's company just changed our insurance package. Along with our insurance cards, we got CVS Caremark mail-order prescription cards. And because a 90-day supply costs me the same as a 30-day supply at the pharmacy, I fill our prescriptions without ever setting foot in a pharmacy.
At this point, the pharmacy relies on loyal customers. Medicaid does not have a mail-order option, so those patients continue to be West Orange Pharmacy customers.
So what can you do to support the local pharmacy? William said that even if you use a mail-order service for your ongoing prescriptions, you can fill "emergency prescriptions," such as anti-biotics or other prescriptions you need quickly, locally.
"It's a new age. The independent business is out. And it's not just the pharmacies. It's bakeries, liquor stores … everything is being done by the big stores. Have you seen how big the bakery is at ShopRite?" said William.
For several years now, the West Orange Pharmacy owners have been approached by the chain stores. "Every year, [they] come in and want to buy us out. All they want is our customer base. They'll liquidate our contents. They won't keep the physical store here, it's too small for them," William said.
"It's the way that business is going," William said. "But we've got a few years left."