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McKesson Corp. bids for the 400-store Uniprix

Canada’s most powerful pharmacy retailers have grown powerful in a relatively stable competitive arena, but that status quo is changing. One of the Big Three U.S. drug wholesalers has serious designs on the Canadian drug store market.

McKesson Corp.’s bid for the 400-store Uniprix drug store group, Quebec’s second-largest behind Jean Coutu Group, marks a significant ramping up of its competitive strategy in Canada. It also highlights the company’s determination to protect its flanks against Coutu, Shoppers Drug Mart and Katz Group/Rexall, all of which are expanding in the province, and in particular Shoppers.

They’re lured by a market that retail analyst David Hartley, of the investment firm BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., called “highly coveted,” according to a report in the Toronto-based newspaper The Globe and Mail, “given the high number of prescriptions dispensed there.”

The numbers are telling: the average drug store in Quebec dispenses 90,000 prescriptions a year, according to the report, compared with 40,000 elsewhere in Canada. That’s the sea in which Uniprix swam, and it made the 32-year-old pharmacy distributor and drug store service company a rich prize for McKesson. Indeed, Uniprix’s drug stores generated combined total sales of nearly $1.3 billion U.S. last year, according to the Bloomberg news service.

Like its rivals, Uniprix isn’t a corporately owned drug store chain in the American sense, because of Canadian laws governing pharmacy ownership. Those laws dictate that pharmacists must directly own the stores they operate, so Uniprix is a drug store branding and marketing membership program as well as a supplier to its roughly 400 owner-operator members. If McKesson succeeds in its bid for the company, it will shift that business to the U.S. giant’s Canadian subsidiary, McKesson Canada, and give McKesson the right of first refusal to purchase other independent drug stores serviced by Uniprix.

The deal also extends the wholesaler’s reach into the business of direct drug store operations as opposed to just supply-chain services, following McKesson’s purchase last summer of another Quebec-based drug store umbrella company, Groupe PharmEssor, which serviced some 270 independent drug store members.

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