Along with milk, bread and meat, you can now pick up a few free antibiotics at your neighborhood Publix store.
The Lakeland grocer Monday launched a drug program that allows customers to obtain up to a 14-day supply of seven common, generic oral antibiotics. Publix is not limiting the number of free prescriptions per customer.
The program ratchets up the generic-drug price war triggered last year by discount goliath Wal-Mart. The mass retailer slashed prices on 291 generic drugs to $4 for a 30-day supply. Refusing to be left behind, Target followed with a similar program. In October, Michigan grocer Meijer announced it's doling out eight generic antibiotics for free.
"Supermarkets were more aggressive initially in responding to Wal-Mart type of programs than the drugstores," said Dan Alaimo, editor of nonfood strategies at the trade magazine Supermarket News.
Publix declined to elaborate on how much the new program would cost the grocer. The average retail price on the listed drugs could be anywhere from $10 to $60. It's not known if the company will eventually raise the cost of other products to make up for the difference.
Still, Publix's announcement marries well with the soaring popularity of generic drugs. Profit margins on name-brand drugs are in constant decline, according to a 2006 study by Mark S. Gottlieb, a New York accounting and consulting firm.
The study said that many traditional drugstores are losing ground to grocers, discounters and online retailers. In 2006, five supermarket chains were posting annual pharmacy revenues of more than $1-billion, giving them 12 percent of the total pharmacy customers.
In a fiercely competitive market with tight margins, grocers are now using the discount drug programs as loss leaders - meaning they are willing to lose money in offering free antibiotics - to make more money on the added customers attracted to their grocery stores.
"The main thing is to get people into the stores," Alaimo said.
At Publix - the No. 1 grocer in the Florida market - most of the customers who stop by to fill prescriptions end up shopping at the store, said company spokeswoman Shannon Patten. Pharmacies became part of the company's offering in 1986. Today there are 684 locations in five states, and Patten touted it as a growing segment. She declined to disclose the income generated by the division.
"We are constantly looking at ways to build our loyal pharmacy customer base," Patten said.
The grocery chain said the seven offered antibiotics account for almost half of the generic pediatric prescriptions it fills.
Alaimo believes Publix's deal is smart marketing.
"It a way to maintain their good image," he said.
With 3.5-million uninsured residents, Florida ranks 49th in the nation in the latest ranking of states and the uninsured. Publix stressed in its news release that "commitment to the total health and wellness of our customers and their families" led to the program's launch.
It's not a statement that some are willing to buy.
"It's a PR gimmick," said John Norton of the National Community Pharmacists Association. "It's a competitive marketplace out there, and a lot of the big stores are using promotional gimmicks to attract attention."
Pharmacy giant CVS declined to comment on Publix's announcement, but Gottlieb of New York said he doesn't foresee discount drugs and grocery stores pushing aside traditional and chain pharmacies.
"The Walgreens, CVSes and Rite Aids will also do something to respond to the competition," he said.
Shoppers embraced the simplicity of Publix's new deal. If it's free, they said, it works.
"Anytime you can get prescription drugs at low or no costs, that's great," said Ron Bradley, 78, from St. Petersburg. "That's one of the many problems with this country - health care and drugs can get so expensive."
The retired trial lawyer, who had a prescription for amoxicillin for a sinus infection, said he would use the program.
"I'm retired, so any time I can save a nickel I try to."
For Eddie Evans, 37, a St. Petersburg stay-at-home dad, shopping at Publix for medicines is more about convenience than price.
"It's close to our house, but free's always good too," he said.
Times staff writer Nina Kim and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Madhusmita Bora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)225-3112.
What's covered in the free antibiotics deal
With a prescription, you can get a 14-day supply of:
-Ciprofloxacin (excluding ciprofloxacin XR)
-Erythromycin (excluding Ery-Tab)
How Publix's program works
- The program's seven listed drugs are available for free for anyone with a prescription. You don't need any insurance, and there's no limit to the number of prescriptions you can fill for free.
- The deal applies for supplies lasting up to 14 days, but the company is willing to honor a valid prescription refill.
- If you are allergic to the listed drugs, you can't have substitutes for free.