Inside Retail Weekly: What would you say are some of the interesting things that have come out of Covid-19 for Blooms The Chemist?
Pamela Bishop: I think one of the best things to come out of the pandemic was the rapid rollout of technology. Pharmacy had really been an old-school industry where there was a lot of faxing and paper-based prescriptions, whereas telehealth and e-health really ramped up during that time. Now you can go in-store with your phone, a QR code, scan it and your prescription gets dispensed. That didn’t exist two years ago. Obviously, it was a requirement for team members to get trained so they can keep up to speed with the changing landscape. Everything has changed in their world [since Covid], from their interactions with their customers to the services we offer to the technology that we need to be across. It’s a really interesting time.
IRW: Even before the pandemic, there had been a rise in customer abuse in the retail industry. How did you guys help your teams deal with that customer abuse and the training involved there?
PB: One of the things we initiated really early on in April 2020 was Zoom meetings every Wednesday at 7am and 7pm for well over a year, and they still continue to this day. It was an opportunity for store team members to jump on [for] a business update, but it was really more about networking and support for them. Our store in regional New South Wales could hear from team members in Victoria, who were in lockdown, and they could share experiences.
And when they did have some issues with aggressive customers, it was a great sounding board and a place for them to hear that it wasn’t just them and their community. It is actually a widespread issue. It reassured them that they weren’t alone. And then they could actually pull themselves together and hear about what to do if it happens.
IRW: You guys often see people at their worst when they’re sick. And at the same time, it’s also a very intimate relationship in a way. Certainly, the customer experience at your local fast-food chain for example, is not the same.
PB: No, it’s certainly not transactional. And you know, I think today, pharmacy is one of the most trusted professions in Australia. There is a lot of trust, and there is a lot invested in that relationship. And you’re right, we hear stories all the time about pharmacists who used to serve Mrs. Jones, then Mrs. Jones had her baby…you have that trusted relationship and the pharmacists know your family history, your health issues and your concerns. So that trust piece, I think, is really high in pharmacy, probably compared with general retail.
But that comes with a lot of responsibility as well. And I think over the last couple of years, we’ve definitely seen some trying times and sadly, people are saying there’s a second pandemic and it’s mental health issues. That’s definitely a challenge with our team members, but also, the genuine public and the community coming out of this pandemic. We need to work out where we can offer support as well. One of the really good things we did was from a training perspective; last year, we rolled out Mental Health First Aid training to all of our store teams during a really challenging time when there was a lot more pressure on them.
In the early days, team members were terrified because no one really understood what Covid-19 was and everyone was scared that they were going to get it and they were worried about going home to their families and giving it to their families. Obviously, it was also about supporting customers and all of our stores are reporting a rise in the number of customers who want to come in and talk about their mental health. There are long waitlists to get into their GPs to get a mental health plan. Earlier this year, we conducted our first ever wellbeing study of our entire workforce. That’s something we’re committing to do every six months or so to see what the issues are. Then we will evolve our training requirements and the support [based on the scores we get.
IRW: Can you tell me a bit more about the wellbeing study and what you found out from it?
PB: It was a really worthwhile exercise to check in with the team. We’d been doing those check-ins on Zoom, but not everyone feels totally comfortable sharing everything in front of a group, so it was an anonymous survey and we’ve had some really good insights from that. I think it will help us tailor what activities we roll out to stores, like wellbeing and culture initiatives.
IRW: What were some of the highlights from the survey?
PB: It’s not so much a highlight, but probably the alarming fact that we do have team members who are doing it tough at the moment, for a variety of reasons. It depends on location and demographic. We’ve got some stores that just feel like they can’t catch a break. We have a store in Lismore, so they’ve gone through the whole pandemic, the stress and everything that came with that and then [in the floods], they literally lost that store and staff members have lost their homes.
IRW: The pharmacy sector looks like a competitive space, so how does a business differentiate itself? What does pharmacy retail excellence look like?
PB: Yeah, great question. It’s a really mature industry. It is competitive, but there are also limitations. So it’s a highly regulated industry. The government actually regulates how many pharmacies can operate in Australia. Australia is one of the last few countries where you have to be a pharmacist to own a pharmacy. So if you go over to Europe or the States, it’s deregulated. In the States, there are pharmacies in Walmart and Costco and Target.
The industry itself is still somewhat protected here in Australia. While there is a lot of competition, there is also quite a lot of regulation or protection. It’s a really interesting industry to operate in.
In terms of the competition within the retail pharmacy, there are two main areas: there’s retail pharmacy, and then there’s hospital pharmacy. As you can imagine, they’re quite different. In hospital pharmacy, someone might be getting discharged and receiving their antibiotics, and you might never see that customer again. But within the retail pharmacy landscape it’s different. In the retail pharmacy landscape, there are a few different segments. We invest a lot of money in market research, we do it quite regularly, we really want to stay across what our customer is seeing when it comes to the industry. And it’s pretty clear that there are three main areas.
The first one is discount pharmacies. There are a lot of discount pharmacy groups out there and I would say that segment is highly competitive, and it’s very much driven on price. The next one is more of a dominant beauty offering, like Priceline for example. They have different customer demographics as well, mainly they’re younger females going in and really interested in that beauty space. It’s competitive, too, because there are outsiders competing, like Mecca and Sephora. That beauty segment is extremely competitive. From what I’ve been reading, so many customers have shifted online during the pandemic as well, so I think that’s a tough space to be operating in.
And then the third is where we sit, which is community pharmacy. The community pharmacies are entrenched in that local community, often in the little shopping malls where there’s a butcher and a pharmacy and a supermarket. What is really different is that community connection. What market research tells us is that often the customer doesn’t even really identify with the brand. So it might be a Blooms the Chemist, or a Terry White Chemmart or an Amcal, but they will actually identify with the pharmacist in that store. So they’ll say, ‘Oh, I go to Tim’s pharmacy, or I go to the pharmacy up the road.’ It’s really about that intimate relationship with their pharmacist, and there’s so much trust there. So they’re very loyal to the pharmacist and the store team that helps them solve their problems.
For us, our objective is to be the leading community pharmacy group, so we’ve got a strategy around that and we’ve got a number of strategic goals and my team are tasked with executing that strategy, because ultimately, the goal is to differentiate. We’re not competing against the discounters or the beauty stores – we are competing in that community pharmacy space. How can we be the best community pharmacy and what services are we offering the community?
So there’s the retail offering, from a health perspective. We want to be a destination for health products. And then on top of that, it’s the services we are offering, blood pressure checks, sleep apnea tests, there are a number of professional services that our pharmacists offer. There’s a lot of work happening in the background to further develop that and look at what’s happening overseas.
But yeah, it’s about trying to stand out…and really leading the way when it comes to our community engagement. It’s an area I’m particularly passionate about and which my team leads as well, which is what we’re actually doing with our charity partnerships and supporting local community initiatives. A lot of our stores sponsor their local sports teams. That whole connection to the community is really what sets us apart.
IRW: Sustainability is high on the agenda for Blooms this coming year. Can you tell me about that?
PB: Some of our suppliers were quite surprised [when they found it]. We’ve got a whole body of work [to do] on our environmental impact right into the supply chain. Our suppliers tell us we are the only pharmacy chain speaking to them about these things, so it’s nice to lead the way but it’s also daunting because there will be a lot of work to do. We’ve got to hold the mirror up to ourselves and do better, but we also need to bring our suppliers and stores on the journey as well.
To be honest, it’s a very wasteful industry. If you think about the packaging our medication comes in – it’s not easy to recycle. All of these disposable face masks are not easy to recycle, so as an industry, we’ve got to step up and do better.