WOODBRIDGE, N.J. -- Pathmark Stores is sending its pharmacists back to school.
The retailer here is requiring each of its 350-odd pharmacists to complete 12 hours' worth of continuing-education credits in vitamins and herbal supplements by early April, according to Stuart Seltzer, director of pharmacy operations.
"I'm very positive about this. We think it's a tremendously growing category, but the average pharmacist lacks the knowledge of vitamins and herbals," he said. "A lot of pharmacists are skeptics, as are doctors, so you have to show them the medical basis for what these products claim to do if they're going to recommend them.
"The pharmacist can play a very pivotal educational role."
According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, 1997 vitamin sales in multi-outlet food, drug and mass merchants totaled $2.5 billion, 18.8% more than was recorded in 1996.
Food stores alone accounted for $602.7 million in vitamin sales, a 17.5% rise from the 1996 total. Supermarkets sold $202 million worth of mineral supplements, the fastest-growing subset of the vitamin category as tracked by IRI. That sum represented a 40.5% increase from prior-year numbers.
At the end of this month, instructors from the University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy will be conducting concurrent four-hour "live" sessions at three locations -- here, in New York and in Cherry Hill, N.J., Seltzer said.
Each Pathmark pharmacist must attend one of those sessions, then complete two four-hour blocks of home study, he said.
Pathmark will pay the pharmacists for their time, Seltzer said. He said he did not know what the entire investment would be, but he noted that the average Pathmark pharmacist makes $30 an hour. At that rate, for 350 pharmacists each putting in 12 hours, the total would be $126,000.
"That's how important we think this is."
Seltzer said Pathmark's private-label vitamin and supplement supplier, which he declined to name, is covering costs associated with the University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy's involvement in the program.
An industry source knowledgeable about Pathmark said the supplier is International Vitamin Corp., Freehold, N.J., which also supplies the retailer with a range of vitamins and supplements under the Nature's Wonder and Fields of Nature brands.
Pathmark has made a strong private-label commitment in this category, offering an array of synthetic and natural store-brand vitamins, as well as items like beta carotene, lecithin and oyster shell calcium, and a secondary private-label line called No Frills.
On a recent visit to an older Pathmark store with a pharmacy, on Route 17 South in Lodi, N.J., SN found a 12-foot in-line vitamin and supplement set, half of which was devoted to private-label products.
"Do I think we'll sell more vitamins and herbals?" Seltzer asked. "Sure. Which is not to say the company is involved in a big marketing push. "
Pathmark's pharmacy division is also moving forward with plans for a diabetes-management program, according to Seltzer. The retailer is now negotiating to get a college of pharmacy and a pharmacy benefit management company involved, he said.
Pathmark will spend the next two to three months marketing the diabetes program to physician groups and hospitals, he said.
"Unless you have a dramatic buy-in from them, there's no way you're going to get a piece of the action," he said. "It's very important to know you're going to get paid."
According to Seltzer, about 80% of Pathmark's pharmacy business comes through managed-care organizations.
He said the diabetes program will originate somewhere in New Jersey, as the state's laws sanction certified diabetes educators as health care providers.
Initially, Seltzer said, Pathmark wants to choose an area where three or four units are in close proximity so a pharmacist could visit each store once a week to offer counseling and other diabetes-management services to customers.
He said the company is not sure yet how to bill for its diabetes-management services -- whether directly to customers or to third parties -- but he said the program "would more than pay for itself."