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November looks like it was a strong month for drugstore sales, with



emerging as a big winner, thanks to the grocery strike in Southern California.

Analysts expect the group's November same-store sales to be up between 4% and 5.5% from last year, compared with a gain of 6.6% in the year-ago quarter and 5% in October. Pharmacy same-store sales are seen rising in the mid-7% range compared with last year's 10.5% increase and a 7% rise in October. Front-end results -- the nonpharmaceuticals portion of drugstores -- are seen up about 2%.

November sales updates start coming out Tuesday and keep arriving for a week, with Walgreen and


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reporting on Dec. 2. Eckerd, which is owned by

J.C. Penney

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, will report on Dec. 4,



on Dec. 5 and

Rite Aid

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on Dec. 9.

Duane Reade

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does not release monthly sales reports.

The biggest question mark is Eckerd, whose waning same-store sales and operating profit have plagued J.C. Penney for at least a year. The department store has said it will figure out a plan for the drugstore by year's end. That could mean selling it.

Goldman Sachs analyst John Heinbrockel expects total drugstore same-store sales to improve 8% and pharmacy same-store sales to rise 9.7%, excluding Eckerd.

The analyst noted that due to the easy year-ago comparisons, "drug retailers' top-line performance remains stronger than department stores, supermarkets and some specialty retailers, but weaker than discounters and upscale operators."

Heinbrockel also said that a steady consumer and "moderating generic penetration" also boosted the drugstores' sales during November.

While the analyst believes the group as a whole will have a 5.5% average increase in comps, he said there will be variation in the individual companies' performance.

"These disparities are closely tied to relative competitiveness, determined principally by real estate quality, pharmacy service intensity, pricing/promotional effective and overall execution," Heinbrockel wrote in a recent research note.

Walgreen, for example, is expected to be the month's big winner, with broad-based strength and total comps up 10.2%, according to Heinbrockel. Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Jack Murphy expects an overall 10.5% comp increase with a 6% rise in the company's front-end same-store sales.

Heinbrockel predicted that the company will see its sixth month of better-than-expected results. In fact, he said that November's results could determine the company's ability to outperform in its November quarter, in which analysts currently expect earnings of 24 cents a share.

If Walgreen has an 11% increase in comparable-store sales for the month, Heinbrockel believes total sales growth would increase to 16.6%. Thus, the company could conceivably earn 25 cents a share in the quarter. Further, the analyst believes improving operating momentum will drive more price-to-earnings multiple expansion over the next six to nine months.

Prescription same-store sales at Walgreen are seen up 6%, Heinbrockel said. He noted that there's evidence that incidence of the flu has increased and said the first impact would be seen in the November results. The analyst said he has adjusted for "a very minor amount" of impact, however.

At both CVS and Rite Aid, sales growth is seen as moderate, Heinbrockel said. Prescription-comp sales at the two companies are seen up 1% to 2%, according to the analyst. At CVS, pharmacy same-store sales are seen up 8.5%, compared with a 7.5% increase at Rite Aid. Overall, the analyst expects total drugstore-comp sales increasing 6.4% at CVS and 7.3% at Rite Aid. (Goldman Sachs does investment banking for Walgreen, Rite Aid and CVS.)

Smith Barney Citigroup analyst Lisa Cartwright expects Rite Aid's and Walgreen's front-end comps to benefit from strong holiday sales, improved consumer confidence and the grocery workers' strike in Southern California.

"As Rite Aid continues to focus on its front end, we expect continued strong results, helped by its exposure to Southern California as well as our expectation for a solid Halloween," she wrote in a research note.

Front-end comps at Rite Aid are seen up 6% to 7%, while CVS' are seen rising 2% to 3%.

Thanks to the strike, Long's had previously reported a 250-to-300-basis-point boost to its top line, and this month Cartwright sees Rite Aid's and Walgreen's top lines also benefiting by 400 basis points.

Regarding pharmacy results, Cartwright believes customers who were reluctant to cross grocery strikers' picket lines could have gone to Walgreen or Rite Aid instead, as they finished up their 30-day prescription supplies.

Longs' overall results are seen as flat to down 0.5% with a 2% increase in pharmacy comps and a 2% increase in front-end same-store sales, according to Credit Suisse's Murphy.

And Eckerd's results are seen as characteristically dismal. Prescription comp sales are forecast to be down 7%, total comp store sales are seen down 1.8% and pharmacy comps are seen as unchanged, according to Goldman Sachs.