Q&A: Pharmacist Turned Coffee Shop Owner on the Current State of Independent Pharmacy

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Chris Schaffner, owner of Schaffner Pharmacy and Apothecary Coffee in Sedro Woolley, Washington, discussed the state of today’s independent pharmacy market, as well as his own pharmacy operations.

Chris Schaffner, PharmD, sat down with Drug Topics to talk about his joint business, which combines a coffee shop and a pharmacy. Owner of Schaffner Pharmacy and Apothecary Coffee, Schaffner discussed the current state of the independent pharmacy market and what independent pharmacies can do to face ongoing challenges within the industry.

Aside from industry hardships, he discussed ways independent pharmacies can maximize sales, meet their customers’ needs, and stay involved in both the community and state legislature.

Chris Schaffner, PharmD, discussed owning 2 businesses in 1 location: Schaffner Pharmacy and Apothecary Coffee. | ศิริธัญญา ตันสกุล / stock.adobe.com

Chris Schaffner, PharmD, discussed owning 2 businesses in 1 location: Schaffner Pharmacy and Apothecary Coffee. | ศิริธัญญา ตันสกุล / stock.adobe.com

Drug Topics: What specific aspects of your pharmacy operations would you owe your continued success to?

Chris Schaffner: Everybody's price is the same, so we don't really compete on price. I think we compete on experience for patients. I think it's unique not just in our area but around the country in terms of the vibe that we have in here, but the lengths that our technicians and assistants go way above and beyond typical in terms of communicating with patients so that they have a good expectation of what's going to happen when they come in the pharmacy. [There are] no surprises. If a drug’s out of stock, we're communicating that and saving them the trip in and I think it's also our pharmacists are all excellent.

We have a reputation with providers and patients that this is the go-to spot in the area for high-quality care, even [on the] pharmacy side and on the medical side. We do a lot of medical billing for acute care needs. We have the ability to test and treat for strep and flu and urinary tract infection, yeast infection, and lots of acute needs. We also do quite a bit of chronic disease management. So, we have relationships with health care providers in the area that refer patients in and we help their patients get to goal. So, it's all of that tied into one. Our pharmacy is just known for excellence in general. And so, people want to be part of that. And we're also quite active on social media. We have great involvement with our community. And I think that helps as well when they see me out at the store. They feel like they can come up and talk to me and it's going to be friendly. It's still excellent care but with a really personal touch, and that's been our key to success.

Drug Topics: What advice would you give to owners aiming to improve the front end of their business?

Chris Schaffner: I think you have to see what your patients need. You might think they want something and you can always try that. Just ask them, “Hey, what can we carry that can make your life easier?” And also, thinking from a pharmacy standpoint, what are you the expert at? What can you provide your community that nobody else can or can't do nearly as well? From a wellness standpoint, is that supplements? Can you bring in new lines of high-end supplements that they can't find anywhere else? And it's not as simple as just having them on a shelf; you need to be able to talk to them and understand what patients they might benefit and try to create extreme value for those patients.

It's not enough just to have products. We have a really small front end in terms of Advil and Tylenol, and we have the essentials. But we're not trying to compete with the box stores on toothpaste or deodorant; that's not our niche. What our niche is is high-end supplements to help you get the most out of your exercise regimen, or help you lose weight, or achieve your best health. And our pharmacists can all talk about the supplements that are best suited for helping you to sleep better or focus, magnesium. We have recommended lists that our pharmacists understand and can talk to each patient on what are our three recommendations that are best for most patients. And so having that scripting available for your pharmacist, your technicians, your assistants, so that they can help every patient that walks in, will help drive in sales on supplements and other items that you might carry.

Drug Topics: With so much uncertainty and hardship in today’s independent pharmacy market, what advice would you give to other independent pharmacy owners who may be struggling amidst ongoing issues?

Chris Schaffner: I think first and foremost, we need to continue supporting our state and national associations, because they do quite a bit of heavy lifting for us when it comes to advocating, but we ourselves still need to be really active in terms of communicating with our legislators, and state and federal representatives. Build relationships with them, invite them into the pharmacy, talk to them. They need to know the tremendous value that we bring to our communities, and they need to know your challenges. Whether they do something about it or not, that's up to them. But they need to at least be aware. I think we assume that everybody understands the plight that we're in as a profession. And I don't think that's the reality. I'm always surprised when students that are in pharmacy school [are] not aware of what PBMs are, what the challenges are. And if they don't know, how do we expect the general public or state legislators to know?

So, continue to advocate; that's the big one. We actually had success. In Washington, we just passed a PBM reform bill signed into law in March. We were lucky enough, our local senator was on the state senate floor when the vote came in and he called me and he asked me what I thought about the vote, which way he should vote. I gave him the synopsis and my recommendation, and he took it, and luckily it passed. And so, I think that's proof that those relationships do matter. We have to constantly build them and maintain them. And it's an ongoing process as people leave office and come into office, but you need to continue to work at it.

The next thing I think for pharmacy owners is [to] get a handle on your inventory. Get a handle on your patients, in terms of sync, so you can reduce your carrying costs. Cash is king in business, so freeing up as much money and not tying it up in your inventory is probably step 1. And then [take] advantage of your pharmacy system to know what it can do and how it can help you to mitigate losses, to identify opportunities, and take the best care of your patients possible.

READ MORE: How Coffee Helped This Pharmacy Improve Front-End Sales

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