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Finding Pharmacists

The right pharmacist can buoy a successful pharmacy department.


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A 2015 survey by the online publication Drug Topics shows that most pharmacists earn at least $100,000 in annual salary, and nearly half earn between $116,000 and $140,000. That represents quite an investment for the typical supermarket—and the spending does not stop there.

Depending on store pharmacy hours, a second pharmacist might be needed, and surely the store will need a couple of pharmacy technicians, typically at $12 to $22 an hour, and maybe an intern or two, at $18 per hour or more. 

Put those salaries together, and store managers must answer a very important question: How do we utilize our pharmacy staff to ensure a maximum return on our investment?

“If the pharmacy wasn’t a money maker, why would they stock $1 million in over-the-counter products, dietary supplements and all those sorts of things in addition to their prescription inventory?” asks Dr. Nicholas Popovich, formerly a pharmacist in the Jewel-Osco supermarket chain and now an associate dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy’s Office of Professional Development. “The pharmacist can really make that pharmacy go and increase dollar sales. It can be a profit center if you’ve got the right pharmacist who can really develop a rapport with his or her patients.”

For the supermarket, industry observers say the right pharmacist is not just someone who meets prescription quotas. He or she must also be someone who is eager to interact with the public, who wants to build relationships, who jumps at the chance to counsel customers and who initiates and participates in-store clinics. In short, the supermarket pharmacist must be a people person, and not every pharmacist fits the description.

Yet, the store pharmacist is typically two counters away, head bowed, focused only on what he or she is doing and appearing to be anything but approachable. The sign nearby reads, “Ask the pharmacist,” but one look at the pharmacist tells customers the sign is only a suggestion and not to be taken it seriously. 

There may be a lot of things going on at the typical supermarket pharmacy, but relationship building is usually not one of them. Observers say that when relationships are not being built, opportunities are being lost. That is a problem for the supermarket bent on maximizing the return on its investment in a pharmacist.

Dr. Joshua Kinsey, the director of the Community Pharmacy Residency Program and an assistant clinical professor at Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy in Atlanta, has been a pharmacist in an array of settings. He has worked in independent, drugstore-chain and supermarket-chain pharmacies; he has owned a pharmacy; and he is now in academia at Mercer, from which he graduated 10 years ago.

“Of course you want to increase prescriptions because the more numbers you have, the more reimbursements and the more money generated,” he says. “You also want to build those relationships. You want the reason why people come to your store to be the pharmacist or pharmacy team, so the customer service quality is a definite thing people are after when they are hiring someone. They are going to hire someone who has that passion for community pharmacy, who is personable and approachable.”

Bill Bishop, founder of the Willard Bishop retail consultancy, based in Barrington, Ill., and chief architect of the retail grocery website Brick Meets Click, recently joined his wife on a trip to the supermarket. After a chat with the pharmacist there, they decided to get their flu shots while shopping. The pharmacist’s willingness to take time out to talk to them resulted in a significant amount of extra revenue for the store.

“I think supermarkets have an opportunity to do more to encourage pharmacists to cultivate personal relationships,” Bishop says. “I don’t think that happens very much because the pharmacist is so consistently pressured to hit those production numbers that it’s just not easy for them to be smiling and consulting.”

That presents a conundrum of sorts. On one hand, the pharmacist is supposed to be cranking out prescriptions to ensure quotas are being met and supervising the pharmacy staff. On the other, he or she is supposed to be chatting with customers. Certainly filling those prescriptions is a primary way for the pharmacy team to earn its salaries, but evidence suggests that conversing with customers pays off, too.

Supermarkets Satisfying 

In August, J.D. Power released its 2015 U.S. Pharmacy Study, which showed customer satisfaction with supermarket pharmacies jumped eight points since 2014, from 843 on a 1,000-point scale to 851. Satisfaction with drugstore chain pharmacies went up two points, from 840 to 842. Meanwhile, customer satisfaction with mail-order pharmacies dropped from 822 to 820, and satisfaction with mass merchandiser pharmacies fell from 830 to 822.

The survey notes that pharmacists and pharmacy staff play a key role in satisfying the consumer and that the required step of asking if the consumer wants to consult the pharmacist leads to a 54-point leap in customer satisfaction. When customers believe their conversations with the pharmacist take place in a private area and remain confidential, as HIPAA laws require, the satisfaction rating improves by 99 points.    

The study also notes that offering health services can increase customer purchases of nonprescription items. Sixty percent of customers who use a store pharmacy’s services buy other merchandise at the pharmacy.

“Developing interpersonal skills is an emphasis for any pharmacist in any pharmacy, and it’s actually included in the pharmacy curriculum,” says Dr. Jennifer Adams, senior adviser of student affairs for the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in Alexandria, Va., which partners with member schools to enhance pharmacy education and research for the advancement of societal health. “Students learn communications skills. They learn how to interact with a patient who may have a fourth-grade reading level all the way up to being able to interact with other health-care providers who have doctorate degrees. You have to be able to communicate on a number of levels, and you’re generally managing people.”

At the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore, for example, students take a course called Abilities Lab in which they do at least four semesters of practice in-patient counseling, says Dr. Cherokee Layson-Wolf, the associate dean of student affairs and an associate professor. 

“We create patient scenarios for them where they go into a room and they interact with an actor,” she says. “It can be as simple as counseling a patient on a medication to interacting with a physician on what medications to use. We’re actually evaluating them on communications skills, how comfortable they were interacting with the actor, things like that.”

Layson-Wolf adds that the sessions are videotaped and that part of the exercise requires the students to watch themselves in action. They also receive a rating from the actor, who is someone they do not interact with regularly, and they are critiqued. They participate in this type of activity six times during their pharmacy school careers.

If pharmacy schools put that kind of emphasis on communications and interpersonal skills, it makes sense that supermarkets would be wise to take advantage of them when they hire a pharmacist. The community pharmacist, whether in a supermarket, drugstore or box store, must also be a strong time manager and comfortable in a supervisory role.

Popovich says he once counted 87 different career options for pharmacists, ranging from home healthcare consulting to government regulatory positions to long-term care opportunities to mail order and wholesale positions to community pharmacy jobs. He now works on the academic side, where there is another range of opportunities. All require pharmacists with different ambitions and personality traits.

“I think personality really shapes it for a pharmacist to work in a supermarket or in any pharmacy because you have to have patience, good communication skills, and the other thing you have to have is compassion for your patients,” he says. “I used to like to go to work for Jewel-Osco because you have all different types of patients coming in. They don’t want to sit in a chair and wait for a half an hour for their prescription. They’d rather be shopping, which was great for the grocery store.”

When Popovich graduated from pharmacy school 47 years ago, he had six pharmacy-related career options and community pharmacy was prominent among them. It remains a popular option for students today. Some have special interests, such as nutrition, which translate well to the grocery store. Many want to work in retail settings because they want to interact with and help the public. Others, who are more comfortable conversing with doctors and other health-care providers, might prefer to work in a different setting.

Given that supermarket pharmacies and retail drugstores fall under the “community pharmacy” heading, do pharmacists prefer one workplace to the other?

“Pretty much overall it’s the same,” says Kinsey, who has worked in both, “but to me, the supermarkets are more attractive, and I’ll give you a reason why: At a supermarket, obviously their bread and butter is the food. The pharmacy is there as an additional thing—a service they offer. If you have a retail drugstore chain, the bread and butter is the pharmacy.”

With the many demands placed on the pharmacist, proper staffing is a must. “A lot of states are moving toward requiring pharmacy techs to be registered, and part of that registration in some states, like Maryland, either requires them to pass a national certification test or to complete a technician training program,” Layson-Wolf says. “That, obviously, will produce a higher level of technician. This additional training and credentialing means that the pharmacy technician can complete the technical tasks within the pharmacy, allowing the pharmacist more time to interact with customers to provide services such as counseling, immunizations or screenings.”

Pharmacists must stay within eyeshot and earshot when technicians are helping to fill prescriptions, but even that much help can free the pharmacist to administer a vaccine—an ideal time to talk to customers and counsel them—or to recommend and provide guidance on the use of an over-the-counter medication.

As supermarkets look to create their own store identities, a strong pharmacy with a series of health and wellness programs might be the way to go.

“Given the recent healthcare spending in our society, it should be leading the sales in the entire store,” Bishop says. He adds that supermarkets can differentiate themselves by emphasizing health and wellness. He points to Wegmans, which is experimenting with a Doctor on Demand app that allows customers to make virtual doctor visits on their own electronic devices for as little as $40, and the healthcare minded Hy-Vee supermarket chain as examples. The point is not to feature the pharmacy but to make it a key component in an overall health-and-wellness initiative.

“Consumers today use traditional medicine and now resort to alternative medicines, primarily what you might call dietary supplements,” Bishop says. “Somebody has got to help the consumer know something about them.”

That somebody can and should be the pharmacist. Adams says the pharmacist is the last line of defense in the consumer’s healthcare chain. “The American Pharmacists Association did a study a while back that showed more people knew the name of their hairdresser than knew the name of their pharmacist,” she says. “That makes me scared.”

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