April 30, 2009 / 9:54 PM / in 9 years

Drug stores busy but little U.S. flu impact yet

* Sales of hand sanitizers, face masks increase

* J&J accelerates production of Purell sanitizer

* Little impact on U.S. retail, movies so far

By Bill Berkrot

NEW YORK, April 30 (Reuters) - Fear of swine flu has led to a brisk uptick in business at U.S. and Canadian drug store chains as hand sanitizers and face masks fly off the shelves, but it may be too early in the course of the epidemic to gauge the impact in other retail sectors.

“Sales are brisk for items such as hand sanitizers, anti-bacterial soap and protective masks and gloves,” CVS Caremark Corp (CVS.N) spokesman Mike DeAngelis said.

CVS said it was also seeing increased demand for the antiviral drug Tamiflu “particularly in markets where there are confirmed cases of H1N1 flu virus.”

Pharmacy chain The Rite Aid Corp (RAD.N) said the antivirals that appear to be effective against the strain of flu -- Tamiflu and Relenza -- are available in about 98 percent of its nearly 4,900 stores, up from about 84 percent.

Ride Aid said it is also working with suppliers to keep replenishing its stock of face masks and hand sanitizers.

Similar increases in demand are being seen in Canada, according to spokesmen for Shoppers Drug Mart SC.TOchain and Wal-Mart Canada (WMT.N).

“Sales have climbed predictably, but we’re well stocked with back-up product on the way,” said Wal-Mart Canada’s Kevin Groh.

Meanwhile, the director of emergency services at a Connecticut hospital where there have been no confirmed cases of the flu, said nervous patients without fever or other flu symptoms, were flooding the emergency room seeking Tamiflu.

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), makers of the widely used hand sanitizer Purell, said it was ramping up production to meet increased demand.

“We’re doing everything possible to ensure that we have enough product for consumers across the country,” J&J spokeswoman Lori Dolginoff said, adding that the company was working through relief organizations to get the product to Mexico, where the H1N1 influenza outbreaks began and has taken the greatest toll.

While some stock up on hand cleaners, others are apparently loading up on corn flakes.

Kellogg Co (K.N), the world’s No. 1 cereal maker, said it has seen some large orders from Mexican retailers that may be stockpiling in case consumers begin hoarding food in the wake of the flu outbreak there.

Colgate-Palmolive Co (CL.N) CEO Ian Cook told analysts some sales have picked up, but added, “It’s too early to start to make statements about what’s going to happen at retail.”

Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O), which operates coffee shops in 50 countries, said it has seen no impact from the flu outbreak outside of Mexico, where a few stores are closed and Mexico City locations are only selling products to take out.

    The impact in the United States, aside from at pharmacies and hospitals, has so far been muted.

    Shawn Southard, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust Inc (PEI.N), which owns 38 shopping malls and 14 strip malls in the United States, said it was too soon to tell if flu fear was keeping would-be shoppers at home.

    He also said it was difficult to separate fear of flu from other factors, such as high unemployment and the weak economy, that are already hurting customer traffic.

    A spokesman for Netflix Inc (NFLX.O), the home movie rental service, said it had seen no abnormal patterns in business during the last week to suggest that concerned people were staying away from movie theaters to avoid contact with others.

    Major movie studios are delaying the release in Mexico of potential summer blockbusters, but people still appear to be flocking to U.S. movie theaters, considered to be relatively cheap entertainment during an economic downturn.

    Michael Campbell, chief executive of Regal Entertainment Group (RGC.N), the No. 1 U.S. movie theater operator, said it was monitoring the flu situation, but had seen no impact on attendance.

    “We have pre-established plans and procedures in place to make sure facilities are safe for staff and guests,” he said.

    While patrons still appear willing to gather in crowded places, there’s close and then there’s close.

    Some churches, such as in heavily Catholic Chicago, are suspending the drinking of wine from communal communion cups and the traditional practice of parishioners shaking hands. (Reporting by Bill Berkrot and Reuters bureaus in Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles and New York, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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