OVER-THE-COUNTER TRADING

Supermarkets are digging deeper into what was virtually unexplored terrain for them a decade ago: onetime prescription-only products that have gone over the counter.The OTC review process is far from new, but it's just recently begun offering supermarkets the kind of benefits that other retail channels have enjoyed for years, pharmacists said.While manufacturers promoted OTC products at supermarkets

Supermarkets are digging deeper into what was virtually unexplored terrain for them a decade ago: onetime prescription-only products that have gone over the counter.

The OTC review process is far from new, but it's just recently begun offering supermarkets the kind of benefits that other retail channels have enjoyed for years, pharmacists said.

While manufacturers promoted OTC products at supermarkets in the past, they didn't do it as strongly as they did at chain drug stores and mass merchandisers, pharmacists agreed. "It wasn't until about two years ago [when Aleve went OTC] that manufacturers

gave us any type of support," said Dennis Beauchene, director of pharmacy at Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, which has 77 in-store pharmacies.

"That was the first time they started courting us. They finally started to realize that consumers were switching their buying patterns and shopping supermarkets for these products," he said.

Today, pharmacists agreed, manufacturers have a completely new outlook on the distribution of what's become a $14 billion market, according to industry sources. This new vision has offered supermarkets stronger sales opportunities in their health and beauty care and pharmacy departments. It also has enhanced the one-stop-shopping concept.

"They're [manufacturers] taking us more seriously now," said Gilda Morin-Gomez, pharmaceutical coordinator at Gerland's Food Fair, Houston.

Over the last 20 years the OTC market has mushroomed, and its growth continues at a fast pace today.

The Food and Drug Administration has transferred 60 ingredients or dosage strengths since 1976. The early switches were mostly antihistamines, sleep aids, nasal decongestants and antifungals. But in the past two years, the switch process has made an impact in the internal analgesics category with new brands such as Aleve, Actron and Orudis KT, and has created new HBC categories, such as the H2 antagonist acid reducers.

More than 600 OTC products on the market today use ingredients or dosages that were available only by prescription 20 years ago, according to the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association, Washington.

Last year six ingredients went OTC, the highest number since 1982. They were: famotidine (Pepcid AC), ibuprofen suspension (Children's Motrin), cimetidine (Tagamet HB), ketoprofen (Orudis KT and Actron), ranitidine HCl (Zantac 75) and butoconazole nitrate 2% (Femstat 3).

The momentum continues this year. Minoxidil (Rogaine) and nicotine polacrilex (Nicorette) received full clearance last month, while nizatidine (Axid) and ketoconazole (Nizoral) have been granted FDA advisory committee approval.

"The rate of the switches has been accelerated. The volume certainly is surprising," said Barrett Moravec, pharmacy director at Abco Foods, Phoenix.

Also on the horizon are 31 other possible switches: eight in cold, allergy and sinus categories; one in anti-ulcer treatments; 13 in the antifungal, infective and viral categories; three in analgesics; two in muscle relaxants, and four anti-smoking products.

"Ten years ago we saw products coming out, but not at the rate that they're coming out today," concurred Flint Pendergraft, director and pharmacy administrator at Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif.

And Pendergraft predicts that even more products will be switched over the next few years.

"The entire market is going to explode," he said.

One reason for the influx of switches in the last year is that many patents have expired. Also, a decade ago FDA was more strict in deciding which products could go OTC, Pendergraft said.

"It seems that the FDA has loosened up a little bit in terms of what can go OTC," he said. "As a pharmacist, I found it interesting that they let Rogaine go OTC so quickly. I thought it would be tougher because of concerns about its safety."

FDA maintains that it has not relaxed its evaluation standards in any way. Ruth Welch, public affairs specialist, said the agency uses the same criteria to judge prescription-to-OTC applications as it did 20 years ago.

Welch attributed last year's high number of product introductions to a rise in applications. The big breakthrough for supermarkets in terms of speed to market for a new OTC switch came in January 1994, when naproxen sodium (Aleve from Procter & Gamble) went OTC. Before Aleve came out, supermarkets wouldn't receive a new OTC product until nearly two weeks after it was heavily promoted on television and in newspapers, Beauchene of Hannaford Bros. said.

But manufacturers said supermarket retailers themselves have improved the way they're handling switch products. "They've done a good job focusing more on the health care consumer," said Tom Rosenberger, supervisor of public affairs at Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati. "They've increased their capability of delivering OTC medicine."