Article first published in Retail Pharmacy magazine 2013
Remember the good ol’ days of retail? There was no world wide web, shopping centres were few, rents were cheap, and to be successful you just had to keep the shelves stocked, the shop clean, and smile for the customer.
Alas the times of easy retail dollars are long gone!
Twenty years ago most pharmacies took their design cues from the department store model. Bigger was better and a loud statement was made by carrying a large range of every product category. Cosmetics, fragrance, skincare, haircare, toiletries, baby, vitamins, first aid, health shoes, mobility aids, sunglasses, giftware, photography and even credit unions all had a place in the mix.
But the past two decades has seen the marketing equivalent of a triple pincer movement performed on the community pharmacy model. Most all of the traditional categories have been either flooded by big-store discounters (supermarkets, discount variety, warehouse stores), spun-off into specialty businesses (eg. perfume, skincare, vitamins, sunglasses, shoes), or sucked away by online retailers.
This has left many independents with little room to move. Not only is it harder for their message to be heard, but the message is also less clear.
Large retailers have large budgets, and they can afford to saturate the market with the message that range & price are the most important factors in the customer’s purchase decision.
Specialty retailers can focus all their attention on just one product category, which by default implies they are the experts. While online retailers have been riding a wave of consumer fascination with point & click purchases.
For today’s smaller community pharmacies though, standing out in this four-cornered contest means they must resist being drawn into competing on range & price. Instead they should set their own rules of engagement and focus on what they can do best: service and convenience.
Establishing these points of difference is critical to understanding the direction that any future pharmacy design will take. After all, successful store design is merely a physical manifestation of a business’s marketing objectives. The customer experience in-store must align with the marketing position out-of-store, and the design of the physical environment is key to guiding this experience.
So how can the design of a community pharmacy meet these objectives? Let’s look at five target areas of change:
1 - The Singular Message
Retail businesses can communicate their brand to customers through advertising, social media, store design and service. This communication should emphasise what they stand for and what sets them apart from the competition. To be effective, the message must be simple and memorable. When confronted with too many ideas at once, it’s easy for customers to be overwhelmed and not remember anything.
In the past, many smaller pharmacies have tried to represent themselves as a corporate business offering the largest range, best price, and best service. Their marketing would incorporate words like range, value, discount and price. The reality is that taking the discounters head-on is difficult at best.
To align their message with the service and convenience model, their message should use words like health, well-being, family, caring, community, local, neighbourhood and even the inclusion of the proprietors name to make a more personal connection with their target customer.
Emphasising only these attributes removes fuel from the fire of range & price that the competition wishes to ignite.
Some might argue that they can do both – provide local service and convenience as well as range & price. This may be the case if the store is large enough (say 300+sqm) but most are not, and attempting to present an image of “everything to everyone” will just dilute the focus of the message and potentially disappoint the customer.
This singular message of service & convenience should be visible at each point of customer-decision throughout the store. From the shopfront to the shelf to the cash register, then finally upon exit customers should be subtly reminded of what your pharmacy does best.
2 – Counters
If personal service & consultation are virtues of the community pharmacy, then how and where staff and customers interact is paramount to this activity. Script counters, sales counters, consultation desks and in-aisle conversations are all points of interaction.
Traditionally, counters were used as formal barriers to separate customers and staff. The counter said: “I am the professional and you are the customer. This is my space and that is yours.” The advent of forward dispensing has gone a long way to breaking down this barrier in the dispensary, but it still exists in other areas such as the point of sale.
The trend for retail in general is to move toward smaller barriers or even eliminate them altogether. Rather than one large sales counter with two or three registers, a series of smaller service “pods” that allow customers to stand with rather than opposite staff would reduce the barrier and make interaction more personal.
The next evolution of this is to remove the barrier altogether. As retail transactions using cash are reducing, card transactions are increasing, and new payment forms using near-field technology are being introduced, the opportunity to move to mobile POS systems will allow transactions to be performed anywhere on the floor. This technology is already here and has been successfully adopted by some retailers. Engaging the customer one-on-one like this is perfectly suited to the community pharmacy model of “personal service”. It can transform a sterile “transaction” into a personal “conversation”.
3 – Flexible Consultation Space
Whilst community pharmacy will always have a core product mix of pharmacy essentials, there are also ever-changing opportunities for additional health services to be offered in-store. Weight-loss, stop-smoking, nutrition, exercise, hearing, vision, blood, skin, and testing of other ailments of life can all add to the service of “total health”.
These services are predominantly consultation-based, and so require some type of private area. But if they are too private and hidden away, customers may not even know they exist. So contrary to privacy is the need for visibility to introduce the service and make customers comfortable with the process.
As space is always a premium in retail stores, pharmacies cannot afford to have a dedicated counter to every service, but with the design of multi-use consultation areas several services can share space at different times.
These may be considered as multi-use “consultation zones” positioned around the store. They will not only provide convenient access for the consultant, but will also create an impression of consultation for your brand. Remember in marketing perception is reality, and looking the part is as important as being the part.
By far the biggest buzz-word in retail over the past few years, “technology” is a wide ranging topic. Retailers have been scratching their collective heads on how to integrate their “bricks” with their “clicks”, whilst commentators and providers alike have been falling over backwards to offer advice and solutions.
While the challenges of online shopping, social media, and smartphone apps continue to play out, there are some technologies that are proven, stable, and provide immediate advantage to pharmacies.
For example, automated dispensing systems are a widely available and proven technology that can not only improve efficiency, but also present a state-of-the-art image to customers.
As the basic layout of the dispensary in Australian pharmacies has changed little in several decades, an automated dispensing system is an opportunity to break out of this mould and present an exciting new direction to customers who appreciate being served with the latest technology.
Also as discussed earlier, point-of-sale (POS) technology is changing the way staff and customers interact. It is removing the barriers and facilitating a more personal service experience. This should be embraced by community pharmacy as it fits directly with the desired branding attributes.
As new technologies evolve, the key approach for pharmacies will be to determine and implement those systems that add value to their brand and avoid those that have little value, or worse detract from the brand.
5 – Décor
Historically, most community pharmacies have been fairly good at providing a modern, fashionable and comfortable décor environment.
But in an effort to “chase” the competition, the past decade has seen a definite skew towards a supermarket or discount feel in many pharmacies. This has also been compounded by recent global economic conditions and threat of recession.
But attempting to imitate this success is merely playing directly into the hands of the competition.
Alternatively, community pharmacies should embrace their differences. Décor should reflect their brand attributes – more personal, natural, down-to-earth, customised, holistic, stylish and boutique. They should be less sterile, cold, clinical, impersonal, discount, warehouse and supermarket-like.
The use of natural materials, organic shapes, warmer lighting, softer furnishings, stylish features and a more friendly store layout can all contribute positively to the attributes of the community pharmacy brand. This gives them personality, individualism, and adds life to what is otherwise a sterile and serious environment.
Without this change, customers will always perceive them to be directly competing with supermarkets and discounters, rather than providing an alternative solution personalised to their needs.
Changing the way customers perceive a business category is not a simple task, and takes determination and commitment.
Whilst the path of copying the competition appears easier, it inevitably leads to a diminished market presence. After all, leaders set their own course out front, and followers will always be in second place.