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Giant Eagle now offers 10 free antibiotics at its 210 pharmacies

First, it was $4 prescriptions. Now Giant Eagle stores plan to make 10 commonly prescribed antibiotics available free at their pharmacies as a way to build customer loyalty.

O'Hara-based Giant Eagle Inc. said the program that should ease many families' worries over prescription drug prices will begin today at all 210 pharmacies that operate inside Giant Eagle supermarkets.

The no-cost antibiotics program should save customers $4.6 million a year, said Randy Heiser, vice president of pharmacy.

"This is a program that can help a lot of consumers," Heiser said Wednesday. "This time of year, as kids go back to school and people spend more time indoors, certain infections become prevalent."

For Giant Eagle, the idea is to pull in customers who need other prescription medicines, in addition to an antibiotic. "If we attract enough customers, there would be sufficient new business to make this benefit the company in the long run," he said.

The drugs, available in 46 dosages, are Amoxicillin, Ampicillin, Cephalexin, Ciprofloxacin, Doxycycline Hyclate, Erythromycin, Penicillin, Sulfamethoxazole/Trimethoprim, Tetracycline and Bacitracin.

Doctors prescribe them as "first-line medications" to start treating a variety of ailments from strep throat and ear infections to pneumonia, acne and urinary tract infections, moving to stronger drugs if needed, Heiser said.

In most cases, the course of treatment for an antibiotic is 10 to 15 days, he said.

Following moves by Wal-Mart and Target, Giant Eagle began pricing generic versions of many commonly sold prescription drugs at $4 in November 2006. That program, gradually expanded to around 400 drugs, adds up to $64 million in savings to customers each year, the company said.

All of Giant Eagle's now-free antibiotics were on the $4 list before, Heiser said.

Giant Eagle got into the pharmacy business in March 1980, and this past fiscal year it hit a "significant milestone" of $1 billion in sales, Heiser said. Total revenue for the company was $8.2 billion.

Prescription counters now operate in 210 of the 220 supermarkets Giant Eagle operates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

Giant Eagle isn't the first grocer to offer no-cost prescriptions. Publix supermarkets in Florida, Schnucks in Missouri and Wegmans, based in Rochester, N.Y., with stores in several Pennsylvania markets, have run similar initiatives.

But the region's largest grocery chain appears to be the first in the Pittsburgh area to try it. And its 10-drug program appears to reach further than other chains' prescription giveaways, said Bill Bishop, chairman of retail consulting firm Willard Bishop LLC of Barrington, Ill.

"Giant Eagle has been a leader in this regard, in terms of being in the front of the parade in recognizing new connections that influence grocery shoppers," Bishop said, citing the chain's fuelperks! and other promotions.

Retail analyst Burt P. Flickinger III said Giant Eagle's program is well-timed now that many cash- and credit-constrained shoppers are saving up for the flu shots their families will need this fall.

Giving them a break on antibiotics will be a big help, he said. Also, Giant Eagle has watched dominant chains in some markets outside Pittsburgh where it does business use free antibiotic programs successfully.

Drug store chains CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid have responded to supermarkets' initiatives by lowering prices on prescription refills, Flickinger said.

Giant Eagle's free antibiotics plan has one more notable perk, primarily for younger patients.

Special flavorings to help the medicine go down normally cost $3.99 at Giant Eagle pharmacies, or $2.99 for customers with Advantage cards. But they'll be added free to liquid antibiotics in the new program.

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