Overcoming challenges at a major pharmacy retailer

Here I am continuing my interviews with a number of retailers.  All of them have interesting stories to tell about how Covid-19 transformed their businesses.  None of them are willing to state their names.  So we’ll handle these stories anonymously. Let’s continue with a major pharmacy retailer — a household name — selling billions of dollars to consumers in the US.  I spoke with their VP for marketing operations.  Here is a summary of and what he had to say.

Clearly the VP is excited by the work that he and his marketing operations team do on behalf of the retailer and its clients.  He sounds like he is on a mission, and, in fact, he is.  He and the retailer are teaming up with others in the industry to deliver Covid-19 vaccination services to tens of thousands of senior care facilities around the US within the next few weeks.  The logistical hurdles are immense.

The VP oversees the media, channel strategies, and marketing technology on behalf of the retailer and cannot forget how he and his team had to change gears abruptly in March and April as Covid-19 roared onto the scene. 

“Offering a price-off promotion on vitamins clearly was not going to work under those conditions, so we had to pivot to free delivery for prescriptions and to promoting our on-line shopping options,” he remembers.

Since then the pharmacy retailer has had to make many adjustments, for example, to become the largest Covid-19 testing service provider of its kind—having tested millions of individuals in the past year.  His marketing function has not had to worry about demand for the service.  “There is plenty of demand!” he continues.  But vaccination will be very different, because, due to social distancing, clients will need to make appointments.  And the vaccines are not interchangeable.  The second shot will have to be from the same maker as the first shot.  This complexity requires robust customer management processes to assure.

“So a lot of our job now has to do with education,” the VP explains.  When we ask about individuals who might not want to get vaccination, the VP continues, “We stick to the facts… safety precautions, possible side effects… If people do not want to get vaccinated, we certainly cannot force them.”  

How has Covid-19 affected operations?  The VP says that the pharmacy retailer has hired perhaps 10,000 new employees since March 2020 to support the testing and now the vaccination workload.  Because the company was designated an essential business it has seen much less interruption than certain other kinds of businesses.

“Cold and flu remedy sales are down because fewer people are getting sick,” the VP explains, due to social distancing and mask wearing.  “But flu shots were well up,” he concludes.

The VP believes the shift to on-line shopping is real and likely to have lasting consequences. 

The retailer employs its own delivery service because the prescriptions are shipped directly from the local store.  “People trust their local pharmacist,” the VP continues, “so it is important that the shipment essentially comes directly from people they know.”

As far as impacts on his team and their operations are concerned, the VP highlights the huge role of data analytics and insights for his team, especially given the new challenges presented by privacy laws and restrictions on cookies.  He readily acknowledges that the demand for these skills is only likely to grow in the future.  

“Logistics is also a growth area here,” the VP states.  “Think about the complexity of managing on-line deliveries or setting up the testing processes, and now the vaccination surge.”  According to the VP, the retailer has added numerous logistics experts to fill this burgeoning need.

How did the VP get where he is?

His background was in procurement, especially buying direct mail, catalogs, and other media.  When his employer was acquired about 15 years ago, the VP reached out to a contact he knew at the retailer and eventually joined the media team, again in procurement, helping to negotiate media deals.  From there he simply continued to say “yes” every time his bosses asked him to take on a new challenge.  He rotated through multiple roles and projects, generally related to marketing, so that when it came time to recruit a new CMO, “clearly I was the best qualified candidate for the job,” he concludes.

“I love the variety,” he continues.  “No two days are the same.”

Peter Irish
The Barrett Group

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