UPPER TOWNSHIP - John Brittin relishes the role of an independent pharmacy, where he can personally deliver medications to the homebound or infirm in the community and where he can decide what types of health food products to stock.
The latter proved especially beneficial after Brittin and his wife, Terry, purchased Village Pharmacy in Marmora, Upper Township, in 1999. The husband and wife are pharmacists who met at school.
Village Pharmacy opened in 1974. John Brittin, 47, has worked there since 1989.
One of the early major decisions was to remove tobacco products and carry organic and preservative-free foods.
This approach has grown substantially. What once involved just one side of an aisle now makes up nearly 50 percent of the store, said John Brittin, of the Seaville section of Upper Township.
"When we bought it, we had a 2-year-old at the time, and we strongly believed we needed to get rid of the preservatives and hormones in his food, and we struggled to find organic and natural products," he said on a recent weekday morning.
"My wife's passion - and it was her idea - was we could take the extra space out front and get rid of some of the stuff that doesn't pertain to a pharmacy," he said. "The first thing we did is get rid of the cigarettes and tobacco and started getting it health-care oriented with organic foods.
"It was a slow growth, but there were some niches we hit on pretty quickly," he said.
The approach was well timed. Nationally, organic food sales grew from about $11 billion in 2004 to about $27 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, citing data from the Nutrition Business Journal.
Brittin said the growth also meant there were more products, and more products that taste much better than before. He cited difficulties early on finding graham crackers that did not taste like cardboard.
The pharmacy competes with national pharmacy chains, and is able to compete price-wise by being part of a buying group of 900 stores under Compliant Pharmacy Alliance, he said.
The cooperative says it has more than $2 billion in annual wholesale purchases.
Brittin said he was drawn to pharmacy work at an early age, when he accompanied his mother on frequent trips to one. He began working at a pharmacy as a sophomore in high school, but also worked in roofing, carpentry and plumbing - skills he used when building his own home in Upper Township.
While attending the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, he worked 40 hours per week to put himself through school, he said.
After working at Village Pharmacy for a decade, the opportunity arose to buy the business, a major decision that involved cashing in his retirement account and adding a substantial amount of debt.
"For the amount of debt, it was honestly a scary decision, but it was almost a sense of duty. You spend 10 years working with a community, and they're a family. I felt if you let the store get absorbed by a big-box store, I'd be letting them down," he said.
Brittin enjoys the personal aspects of a community pharmacy. He remembers one of his hardest decisions - installing an automated phone system that allows people to dial in prescriptions without speaking to a human.
Worried it may detract from the personal touch for which the pharmacy strove, he mulled the decision for a year.
He said the system has been a success. He gives customers the option of ringing through directly to a live person, but he said only four opted for it.
"It sounds stupid, but those are the things you labor over, because you don't want to remove the customer service. You don't want people to feel like you're making them insignificant and don't want to talk to them anymore," he said. "It's actually freed up my help."
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