On Thursday morning, Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD) reported another month of lackluster sales results. For March, same-store sales were down 2%, whereas top competitor Walgreen Company (NYSE:WAG) reported a 0.7% increase in comparable-store sales. (The third pharmacy giant, CVS Caremark Corporation (NYSE:CVS), does not report monthly sales.) Walgreen is continuing to recover strongly from last year's dispute with Express Scripts Holding Company (NASDAQ:ESRX), and the company appears to be winning market share back from Rite Aid. As a result, I expect Rite Aid's recent return to profitability to prove short-lived.
The details Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD)'s sales decline last month was comprised of a 3.8% increase in front-end sales and a 4.5% decrease in pharmacy same-store sales. Much of the decline can be explained by the introduction of various new generic drugs in the past year; generics are cheaper than brand-name drugs, but carry higher margins for pharmacies. It is perhaps more meaningful to look at prescription count, which does not differentiate between brand-name and generic drugs. On that basis, Rite Aid reported a modest 0.3% increase over the prior year.
On the other hand, Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD) estimated that front-end comparable-store sales benefited by 300 basis points due to the calendar shift of Easter into March. Stripping out all of the moving parts, it appears that Rite Aid's core sales growth is less than 1%, well below the pace seen for much of the last year.
Competition heats up Much of Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD)'s improved performance last year was a direct result of the commercial dispute between Walgreen Company (NYSE:WAG) and Express Scripts, which forced Express Scripts customers to fill their prescriptions elsewhere. While it is difficult to quantify the benefit seen by Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD) (and other Walgreen Company (NYSE:WAG) competitors), Rite Aid's management has admitted that pharmacy sales were boosted by the dispute last year. However, as of Sept. 15, 2012, Walgreen's stores began to accept Express Scripts prescriptions again, and the company has a made a strong push since then to regain lost customers.
Whereas Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD)'s prescription count in comparable stores increased by just 0.3% last month, Walgreen Company (NYSE:WAG)'s stores saw a 4% increase. Walgreen's management also commented that "the percentage of former Express Scripts customers returning to its pharmacies continued to increase in March."