By Joseph Bona
When Norman Rockwell’s portrait of a pharmacist appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post back in 1939, it rang true to readers. The painting showed a moustached pharmacist mixing up a concoction for a child with a doozy of a toothache. It reminded people of their own local druggists, who played central roles in the town and donned many hats in a given day—weatherman, advisor, storyteller, comedian and debate moderator, among them. At the typical small-town drug store, the pharmacist stood behind the counter all day filling prescriptions and chatting with regulars. Old-timers told fish stories and lounged on benches out front. Children filed in after school to buy penny candy from glass jars.
But if this sounds like an era long past, think again. While the setting has certainly changed remarkably since Rockwell’s time, community pharmacies still boast many of the same characteristics that made drug stores such iconic hubs of American life during the 20th century.
For starters, Americans continue to report feeling extraordinarily connected to their local pharmacists. Some consumers will even change stores to follow a transferred pharmacist to another location. And just as they always have, Americans still shop drug stores for sodas, snacks and any number of daily needs items, candy included.
Nonetheless, today’s chains aim to strengthen this sense of community even more. In our Twittering, Facebooking, smartphone-obsessed age, they are wisely focusing on strategic initiatives geared toward humanizing the in-store experience.
Rite Aid’s “Wellness Ambassadors” are but one example. The basic idea is to use these friendly, knowledgeable associates as a kind of bridge between the front of the store and the pharmacy. Wearing light-blue coats and armed with iPads, the ambassadors help people find products and are there to answer questions about over the counter medications, vitamins and supplements. They act as liaisons between consumers and the stores’ licensed pharmacists, and they even go out to visit senior communities and fitness centers to discuss wellness, set up flu clinics and organize health fairs.
Rite Aid recognizes how frustrating it can be for time-pressed shoppers to stand in the middle of the store feeling ignored. “What it comes down to is being able to talk to the customer,” says Amanda Morrison, an ambassador profiled on Rite Aid’s website. “You really do have to care about people.” Rite Aid is on the right track here.
So, too, is Walgreen Co., which has redesigned its stores to lower the wall between pharmacists and customers. This physical barrier might not seem so important at first glance, but the imposing wall formerly created emotional distance between druggists and their regulars. Bringing down the wall and lowering the counters sent a new message: “We can see and hear each other. Let’s talk.” You cannot have a strong sense of community without accessibility.
And as they seek to build community even further, chains might consider reinforcing that Main Street vibe by exploring such initiatives as:
• Taking a Starbucks-like approach to employee training. Your local barista has been carefully trained to learn the first names of regulars and to show “emotional intelligence.” Good baristas know that folks who walk into Starbucks at 7:30 a.m. are more likely to be grumpy and impatient without that first jolt of java; the same is true of a harried mom stuck in the drug store drive-through line after a hard day at the office.
Best-in-class customer service involves much more than repeating pat greetings and behaving in prescribed ways. It is as deep, rich and complex as the gamut of our daily social interactions. From a hiring and training perspective, your employees’ felicity with social interactions is critically important; give it the weight and attention it deserves.
• Strengthening all things local both inside the store and out. When Duane Reade rebranded its New York City stores, the chain took a savvy, locally oriented approach to the marketing, packaging and merchandising of private label brands such as Delish. The goal was to convey a New York attitude and feel. In addition, Duane Reade’s newsletter/circular, The Duane Reader, was full of city-specific information like the skate times at Rockefeller Center. The logic here is catching on across retail.
San Francisco International Airport, for one, has ramped up the selection of local vendors in its retail areas. When you shop or dine inside the airport, the thinking goes, you should know you’re in San Francisco. For drug store chains with hundreds of locations across the country, this is admittedly a more challenging undertaking. But when managers are encouraged to find ways to make the in-store experience reflect the local community, good ideas will bubble to the surface. Could a digital bulletin board be installed to allow locals to post their “lost dog” signs or notices about bike club outings or upcoming volunteer opportunities? Could the pharmacist be more visible out in the community? Individual markets have unique needs. Empower store managers to find ways to recognize those needs and respond to them.
• Consider the role of design in your community-building strategy. In the c-store sector, the Pennsylvania-based chain Wawa has scored a hit with shoppers through its stronger emphasis on community and customer.
For its rollout in the Florida market, Wawa used natural materials, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, warm colors, an outdoor seating area and a redesigned, highly visible kitchen/sandwich-making area to turn its stores into comfortable hangouts. Demand at many of these locations was so great Wawa had to beef up the staff and expand the kitchen and stockroom areas.
The chain has been innovative with social media as well. To date, Wawa’s Facebook page has racked up more than 1.1 million “likes.” Visit a Wawa store on a Saturday morning, and you’ll likely find the place packed with contractors contractors, outdoors men, families and other locals gearing up for their busy day.
In some markets, chain drug stores could strengthen their community feel by installing benches and tables, serving hot coffee and making other hangout-friendly design changes. These stores are already loaded with convenience items. In select markets, there is an opportunity to further engage.
Visually, the community pharmacy will never be able to return to the Norman Rockwell era, of course, but the industry is smart to recognize that despite all the talk about technology, people still crave human connection. By some estimates, in fact, Internet sales still account for only 6% of total retail sales. Yes, online sales are rising at an eye-popping rate, but the vast majority of retail transactions still happen inside brick and- mortar stores, just as they did in the 1940s.
By bolstering community, today’s drug store chains stand to give their customers even more reason to shut down the laptop and head to the store.
Source: Chain Drug Review – April 28, 2014