Natural Foods Merchandiser

Back to the Future

Ritzman Natural Health Pharmacies
8614 Hartman Road
Wadsworth, OH 44281
10 locations in northeast Ohio
Average store size: 4,000 square feet
Projected 2009 revenue: $37 million
Employees: 150
Top sellers: Ritzman Natural Health Pharmacies brand supplements

Marc Peacock Brush

Welcome to the modern, independent, integrated pharmacy. At a Ritzman store, you can buy toothpaste and fill your antibiotic prescription, but don't be surprised if the pharmacist also talks to you about acidophilus and xylitol. According to Jon Fiume, vice president of retail operations and natural products for the Ohio-based chain, the concept of the integrated pharmacy—one that combines traditional prescription services with natural and organic solutions—is key to the Ritzman experience.

My five sons
Forrest Ritzman opened his first pharmacy in 1950. Five of his sons would go on to become pharmacists and buy their own stores, creating a Ritzman chain that now blankets northeast Ohio with 10 locations. "We're that textbook story of a small business built on personal service and involvement in local communities," Fiume says. Eldest son Walt Ritzman runs a free pharmacy clinic, and the company remains a big supporter of local marathons, museums and health expos.

You can find Ritzman pharmacies in the heart of downtown Akron and in towns like Mayberry, USA. Some stores sit on hospital campuses or inside medical office buildings. It's a challenge to serve such a wide array of tastes and communities, but one the company fully appreciates. "We can't cookie-cut this," Fiume says. "Our demographics are so different from store to store." Case in point: Apple cider vinegar flies off the shelves at lower-income, urban locations—it's a common cultural remedy for a host of conditions—but just try to sell a box of rice milk. Head to the rural locations, and you'd better bring an appetite for honey, nuts and herbal teas.

Path to wellness
"When we started this," Fiume says, " ‘pharmacy' was a bad word in the natural products industry." Jump to 1997 when Ritzman, firmly established in the traditional pharmacy sector, took the natural plunge. It was a strategic move, as much about survival as trends. "Independent pharmacies were going out of business left and right," Fiume says. "The big chains were taking over. We had qualified pharmacists who were interested in natural products, and customers who were asking about them. We decided to diversify the business model to stay competitive."

Two stores were devoted to natural—separate branding, separate inventories—and talent like Fiume was brought onboard to introduce a private label product line. Fiume had more than 10 years of retail design and management experience, and the insight to promote integration once a major rebranding and renovation campaign took hold across the stores in 2002. He sees natural and conventional product integration as one more way to differentiate.

Private label prosperity
Ritzman brand supplements—multivitamins, single-letter vitamins, minerals and proteins—have enjoyed double-digit growth per annum since inception. The private label inflects the company's marketing, newsletter and even employee benefits, which include one free bottle each month. One-third of front-end sales comes from the private label, so it's no surprise that Fiume sees potential there. "Our demographics change from store to store but the private label cuts across that." He says the company is planning synergistic relationships down the line between its private label and complementary businesses, like gourmet food markets.

Integration also gives the company insight into movements in health care that it can use as a bridge to the pharmacies. "We can now initiate disease management programs that help health care providers reduce costs," Fiume says. For instance, a diabetic can see a Ritzman pharmacist to check his blood sugar, perform a quick foot exam and find an appropriate natural supplement. That's complete wellness in action, and it's happening at, of all places, a local pharmacy.

Marc Peacock Brush believes in fish oil, freelance writing and Denver.

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