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If it sometimes seems as though there is a Rite Aid, a CVS and a Walgreens crowding every corner, you’re not imagining things. Retail pharmacies have some of the stiffest competition in the business.

To set itself apart, Rite Aid is in the process of converting 1,200 of its stores to a new “wellness center” format. Western New York was one of the first markets to begin the process and is the first to have the majority of its stores running under the new concept.

“We do very well here so it’s a very important, key market,” said Ken Martindale, the chain’s chief operating officer, while visiting the Williamsville store on Main Street.

Rite Aid is number one in Western New York, beating out rival chains that have it edged into third place elsewhere in the country. Rite Aid acquired the Eckerd Pharmacy chain in 2007, which greatly boosted its presence here.

The wellness stores have expanded organic and gluten-free options, boast a GNC store-within-a-store offering vitamins and supplements and have an overall cleaner look, with subdued colors, a wood-grain path leading to the pharmacy and easier-to-navigate aisles.

Stores also have private rooms for one-on-one patient counseling and pharmacist-provided flu shots.

A series of free wellness clinics are scheduled through the summer at various wellness locations, including screenings for diabetes, skin cancer, cholesterol, glucose and heart health.

Each store has at least one “wellness ambassador,” a specially trained employee (often a pharmacy technician) armed with an iPad whose job is to answer questions and assist in researching products and plans of action.

“All of our research tells us people would love to have our pharmacist out from behind the counter, out talking to them. The problem is they’re in such high demand back there we can’t financially make that work,” Martindale said. “What we’ve found is by bringing a technician out from behind the counter, it really helps bridge the front end with the pharmacy.”

The new concept is outperforming the old by about 3 percent, Martindale said.

Walgreens has launched a similar concept, called Well at Walgreens. It staffs wellness concierges called health guides and has “Take Care Clinics” staffed by nurse practitioners who can write prescriptions.

Of Rite Aid’s roughly 100 Western New York stores, 74 have been converted to the new format, with another four slated for the change.

In addition to higher sales, feedback on customer surveys shows the new concept is working.

“The customers really like it,” Martindale said. “They tell us they feel like we’ve expanded the stores, they’re cleaner and neater, friendliness and customer service is going up. We’re very comfortable that we’re making great inroads with consumers.”

Rite Aid chose Western New York as a test market for its Wellness Plus loyalty rewards program in 2009. Program members earn points each time they shop, which earn them discounts, gift certificates and other perks.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com