Minding the pharmacy counter

A Grocery Headquarters’ survey finds that retailers have lots of issues with their pharmacy section.

By Seth Mendelson

What are retailers thinking about when it comes to their pharmacy counters? The answer is a lot of things—most importantly, who is going to run the increasingly important department and what are merchants doing to maximize sales at the pharmacy and related sections?

Grocery Headquarters conducted a survey of supermarket retailers to determine the importance of the pharmacy counter and how they are running the department in terms of manpower, products and marketing. We found that retailers are most concerned with getting the right personnel behind the pharmacy desk and, while knowing everything there is to know about prescriptions is vital, interacting with consumers appears to be very important as well.

The survey, conducted in early December, found that more than 68% of those retailers asked either operated a pharmacy in many of their stores or were in the stages of developing a pharmacy program. Additionally, of those retailers who did not operate pharmacies within their stores, nearly 70% said they would add a pharmacy if they had the space in their stores.

Finding a pharmacist to operate the counter is a much more difficult issue. About 80% of those retailers surveyed said that hiring pharmacists for their stores, and holding on to them—remains the top concern. Many retailers noted that they are working much closer with pharmacy schools to help them find candidates for their stores.

Still many say it is a problem. Several retailers noted that they are now offering in excess of $100,000 a year in salaries and long-term contracts to attract pharmacists. Many also noted that they are enabling pharmacists to help set their own hours, working with them to allow a more traditional work schedule with fewer night and weekend hours.

“They are quite demanding,” says a senior vice president of one supermarket chain based in the Southeast. “Pharmacists realize that they can control the situation because of the shortage of them and they are asking for workloads that are most convenient for them. That leaves us little choice and it sometimes forces us to be creative with the hours of operation for the pharmacy counter.”

Some retailers are offering other perks. Vacation time for starting pharmacists can range as high as five weeks. One retailer said that he is considering offering a paid trip as an added incentive to get more pharmacists to his operation. “We are in the upper Midwest and it is not as easy to get people to consider to relocate to our neck of the woods,” says an official with the company. “So we have to throw in little extras, especially for pharmacists. Last year, we had a special raffle where two pharmacists won all-expense- paid vacations.”

But there are limits. One grocery retailer said that his team got involved in a bidding war with a drugstore chain over two pharmacists graduating from the same graduate program. “At one point, we finally said enough,” he says. “Either join us or don’t, but you have our best offer. The interesting thing is that we got one and they got one.”

Getting the pharmacist to come out from behind the counter is another issue facing retailers. Some merchants note that the more confident a pharmacist is, the more willing they are to help consumers in related areas such as OTC medications and other health segments. Several retailers say that they ask their pharmacists to make time to walk the nearby areas of the store as often as possible. Some even hire assistants to ease the workload of the pharmacist and allow them to more easily interact with consumers.

Many retailers are putting the onus on pharmacy schools. “Of course, we need them to teach the basics and the necessary things,” the Southeastern retailer noted. “We also need them to reinforce that retail is a people business and communication is vital to building trust, sales and profits.”

Another area of concern for retailers is the various pieces of legislation taking effect or being proposed that could impact pharmacy sales and profits. Retailers operating in more than one state seemed particularly concerned with these issues because it is harder to keep track of new laws in different states.

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