By  on May 11, 2007

Will Pharmaca become the Whole Foods of the upscale pharmacy sector?

Executives at Pharmaca and a venture capital firm seem to think so.

Barry Perzow, chief executive officer of the 13-unit Boulder, Colo., pharmacy, and Tom Stemberg, a partner at venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners, are out to grow the high-end pharmacy, which sells everything from organic chocolates to over-the-counter cures and mineral makeup lines, into a chain of 150 to 250 stores in the next five to seven years.

Stemberg, the founder and former chief executive officer of Staples, has joined Pharmaca's board. His Boston venture capital firm has already raised $18 million to fund Pharmaca's growth. In total, Pharmaca has accumulated $70 million in equity, bank and supplier financing to fuel expansion.

"Many people refer to us as the Whole Foods of pharmacies," said Perzow. "They support [their stores] with the culinary passion and with the merchandising and the supply of food that conventional chains can never match. In a very analogous way, it is what we are doing in the pharmacy space."

Whole Foods may not be an apt comparison in one regard: It restricts stock of products not falling under natural, organic or alternative lifestyle descriptors; Pharmaca strategically bridges mainstream, alternative and luxury categories. That means Pantene and Aussie shampoos and conditioners are available adjacent to Aubrey, John Masters Organics, Avalon and Modern Organic Products items.

The integrative concept has the upside of retaining loyal customers, many of whom may have visited a Pharmaca store in their former incarnations (a Pharmaca location in Pacific Palisades, Calif., for example, had been a Bay Pharmacy for over 50 years), but also attracting those intimidated by organic labels. Once ingratiated into Pharmaca's concept, customers are educated by a well-trained staff — Pharmaca has 24 aestheticians to serve its stores. Aesthetician Ghizlane Jaouhar gives 30-minute facials for $35 and 15-minute makeup sessions for $15 at the Pacific Palisades' Pharmaca.

"You want to have something for everybody, so, we have Pantene and Aussie that your typical person off the street is going to know, but we try to switch them on to things that may be healthier," explained the store's manager, Mindi Taylor, during a recent tour. Other hair care lines include ShiKai, Dr. Hauschka and Pharmaca's house brand.

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