Road trip! Visits with America’s thriving indie pharmacies

August 8, 2016

How do independent pharmacies survive? The best way to find out is to ask them.

In today’s hypercompetitive community pharmacy market, you might wonder how independent pharmacies survive. Well, one way to find out is to ask them - and that’s just what I did. Under the sponsorship of the Independent Pharmacy Cooperative (IPC), the industry’s largest buying group, I took a two-week pharmacy road trip this May. My wife, Donna, and I drove 5,600 miles and visited 12 amazing pharmacies in 10 states in the U.S. heartland.

It turns out that these pharmacies are not only surviving, but thriving.

Pharmacies of all sorts

The 12-pharmacy trip was carefully planned to ensure visits to locations of all sizes and types. These included a 9,000-square-foot pharmacy in Texarkana, a 1,000-square-foot location adjacent to a doctor’s office in Oklahoma City, and a no-walk-in pharmacy that provides home infusion services in Nebraska.

I interviewed a pharmacist who owned as many as six pharmacies and visited two female-owned pharmacies and one not owned by a pharmacist.

The trip included visits to pharmacies in major cities such as St. Louis and in very rural areas such as Clay Center, Kan. 

Why the road trip? The goal was to carefully document different management techniques, marketing strategies, and customer service tactics these pharmacies use to attract and retain customers. Many of the findings will be included in an ACPE-approved continuing education course I will present at the NCPA Annual Convention this October in New Orleans.

 

Top takeaways

Here are the three top-line takeaways from my interviews.

1. No whining! Each of the pharmacies I visited was positive, upbeat, and optimistic about the future. Not a negative word was heard about customers, suppliers, PBM issues, or mail-order competition. Sure, we talked about below-cost scripts and other troubling issues, but in each case the owner was able to show me something he or she was doing to attract and retain patients.

2. Diversification, creativity, and innovation are key. In addition to running an exceptional pharmacy, each location I visited was doing something else to serve or impress its customers. 

Medication synchronization is one very successful service many of the pharmacies provide. For patients who are taking multiple medications and who are having a hard time being compliant, pharmacists help them work out a program so that they can get back into compliance.

Often this service entails use of specialized software provided by companies such as Prescribe Wellness to ensure that all meds are tracked, packaged, billed, and ready for pickup at the same time, often by appointment.

Justin Wilson, Pharm D, owner of Valu Med Pharmacy in the Oklahoma City suburb of Midwest City, said that using this service has helped him lower his inventory, better serve his patients, impress local prescribers, and improve his STAR ratings by more than one point. 

Other clinical services vary from offering travel vaccines to having nurses on staff to help with wound therapy, to having respiratory therapists build CPAP sales. Then there are nonclinical features, such as housing an old fashion soda fountain, a Radio Shack franchise, or a post office outlet. 

3. Successful pharmacies have come to realize that marketing is critical to their success. I was impressed by how many have contracted with professionals or tasked a specific staff member to devote most of his or her time to marketing. 

These pharmacy owners have finally realized that having a good location and providing good customer service is no longer sufficient. One five-store chain in rural Colorado hired a local boutique agency to take over all its outside advertising. The agency meets with the pharmacy managers and then devises a coordinated and carefully timed ad campaign. The result, according to Ky Davis, Pharm D, a partner in the chain, is not only better ads: “Our total ad spend has been reduced.”

Many ways to compete

There are many other ways these pharmacies compete. One of their greatest assets appears to be a willingness on the part of pharmacy staff to get out of their pharmacies and meet people in the community. They know the prescribers in their trade area, and they find ways to work with local healthcare providers and agencies.

The overwhelming finding on this road trip was the same as I have seen in the course of other trips: The pharmacy owners’ passion for patient care seems to drive everything they do. They seem to be able to imbue their staff members with the same desire.

I am happy to say that based on everything I saw on this road trip, it is still possible for a capable, creative, and passionate independent pharmacy owner to succeed.

I know I can say this, because I just saw 12 of them.

Elder Bruce Kneeland is a retired industry consultant living in the Denver area. Contact him at brucekneeland@kneelandservices.com.