Unlike the western world, pharmacy retailing in India is largely unorganised. We are all familiar with the friendly neighbourhood chemist, who is able to meet a family’s needs for prescription as well as OTC medicines. The chemist is is usually a ‘mom and pop’ outlet, which stocks medicines in boxes all stored neatly in glass cupboards. The owner is the manager, who runs the store, manages the supply side of things, interacts with customers and builds enduring relationships. He usually employs a couple of low skilled helps to fill orders and at times do the billing.
This model has worked well for decades. However, with the advent of modern retail in the country some entrepreneurs have been experimenting with organised pharmacy chains. In Delhi, one can see outlets of Guardian Pharmacy, the 98.4 stores, Apollo Pharmacy, Fortis Healthworld and CRS Health outlets.
In the South East borough of Sarita Vihar in New Delhi where I stay, I have been noticing interesting changes in the market place. The main market in this residential area had 5 pharma stores catering to the needs of nearly 2000 households. About a year and a half ago a branded outlet of the chain 98.4 commenced operations and recently an Apollo Pharmacy too opened its doors.
I have been a regular with a mom and pop pharmacy called Medicare located in the same market. After the advent of 98.4, Medicare underwent a renovation, an air conditioner was installed, the interiors were redone, a new signage was put up and the billing changed from the old fashioned bill book to a computerised printout. I had always found the store to be well stocked and the owner hospitable. He would typically chat up while one waited for the order to be filled, would offer to send medicines home if ordered over the phone and by and by I liked the guy.
However, when 98.4 opened I decided to try them out as well. With their smart interiors, uniformed and trained staff and a glitzy information newsletter, they did appear to be promising a lot more. Here I must confess that my experiences with the new store has been uniformly bad. The store has never been able to fill my prescription completely. They are invariably short of medicines on my prescription and to make matters worse they do not have a system by which they can instantly procure medicines from a neighbouring store. Thus invariably one has to go to Medicare, where even if they are out of the medicines, the owner happily sends his boy around to the next store to get the medicines and fill the prescription. If that too fails, he readily offers to send the medicines home later in the day. As a customer I appreciate his efforts and the value that he puts on my business.
Last month, when Apollo Pharmacy started, I walked in with a prescription from a local family physician and they too could not fill the prescription. Medicare readily did.
The lessons for the fledgling organised pharma retailing are simple enough. If they wish to compete with the local mom and pop stores, they must find a way to ensure that they stock enough popular brands as well as those most often prescribed by the local physicians. In other words they need to have their ears glued to the ground.
Loyalty Programs (98.4 runs one), customer feedback forms, uniformed staff, an obliging doorman and computerised billing are all add ons and will work well only if the basic service is reliable and fast. The store managers and the staff must be authorised to do whatever it takes to ensure that a customer’s order is filled. Empowerment of the front line executives is a must for them to effectively compete with the mom and pop stores.
Finally, these stores need to train their staff in offering solutions. If a particular brand is not available, they can offer a substitute or promise to have it delivered at the customer’s home later in the day or try something else, which makes a customer feel that his business is valued by the store.
Organised retailing of pharmaceuticals in the country is its infancy in the country. It can only succeed if these early entrants pay attention to these details and ensure a great customer experience at all touch points and every time a customer walks in.