Move to tech "inevitable" says Well Pharmacy

Chris Ellett, transformation director at Well Pharmacy, is helping to guide the multiple through hub-and-spoke dispensing and new technology, while moving it into the digital age

Whenever change is introduced, the critics aren’t far behind. “What I hear is we don’t care about community pharmacy and patient safety. That is untrue. We care.” Well’s business strategy, says Chris Ellett, is not just about making money and not just about digital online stores. It is about listening to what is important to customers. “We’ve got to deliver an experience that meets their needs, and digital online and technology are going to play a large part in that.”

Chris Ellett became transformation director in March 2017. He had joined the Co-op in 2015 and spent two years there. The financial services and supermarket group had sold its pharmacy business to wholesaler Bestway in 2014, forming the group known as Well.

Faced with the pharmacy funding cuts, Bestway – a family business – needed to reappraise its strategy, so Chris was asked to “understand the direction where the business should go”. We looked internally at the Well business model, and also at what was happening in other consumer facing businesses, such as retail or financial services, and the transformation and journey they had been on, he says.

Examining Well from the perspective of customers, it was found that not only the business but the pharmacy sector in general “hadn’t focused enough on or talked about their needs”. What followed was a large piece of strategy work, which began in late 2017 and finished last year.

This included a YouGov Omnibus survey, which asked 4,171 people with a recent prescription what their experience of pharmacy had been like, what was most important to them when choosing a pharmacy, and what their ideal pharmacy looked like.

Not up to scratch...

“Our biggest insight was that the experience customers were getting in pharmacy wasn’t good enough – for example, the availability of medicines and waiting times weren’t up to scratch,” Ellett says.

“If you go into a pharmacy, it is seen as acceptable to wait for your medication for 10 minutes or for medication not to be in stock. If this was any other business it wouldn’t survive. Not only have you got a really bad experience in pharmacy from a customer’s perspective, but those customers are having their expectations set by other businesses outside pharmacy,” he says. [See infographic below.]

The findings focused the business on three main areas. First was the automated hub-and-spoke model of dispensing medicines. “This is important because if funding continues to be squeezed, and people live longer and with long-term conditions, script volumes will increase. You’ve got to drive efficiency, and automation will play an important part in that,” says Ellett.

Medicines availability and waiting times weren't up to scratch

People tend to “overreact” to this automated model, he says, in the belief that pharmacy is replacing humans with robots. “That’s not true. Our fundamental belief is that we don’t pay highly qualified pharmacists who’ve studied for many years to stick a label on a box and check it. If we can automate some of our transactional activity, that means pharmacists can spend time supporting colleagues in-store and having important conversations. The hub-and-spoke solution allows you to drive efficiency and free up capability,” he says.

Every other industry has had a “significant shift to online”, he says, but true online pharmacies equate to less than one per cent of market share (compared to retail at about 20 per cent and financial services at around 60 per cent). The move towards digital online pharmacy was “driven out of pure customer need”, he says.

Well’s strategy also focused on patients with repeat prescriptions who don’t need to see their doctors and are not necessarily able to visit a pharmacy. “Wouldn’t it be great if patients could place a request online or through an app for their medicine?

It is about giving that choice and convenience to the customer,” he says. “Our research showed customers want choice. This is not simply replacing our physical stores online. It is about giving customers an experience that fits around them as opposed to fitting around us as a business,” he says.

Improved customer experience

The third element of Well’s strategy was to improve the experience of customers visiting its bricks-and-mortar pharmacies. To help ensure customers have a “modern retail experience” when visiting Well’s stores, the business created a pilot concept.

Well took its store in Northenden, Manchester, and considered how to redesign it – not just in terms of its look and feel, but also to make it a great environment to work in, to consider the technology that could be used, to make the redesign efficient and “give an experience that makes customers want to come to our store as opposed to going to a competitor”.

Launched last November, Well called this pilot site its first ‘essential pharmacy’ store, with a bold redesign that includes a large glass window that looks right through into the dispensary, so customers can see the work staff are doing. Chris Ellett explains that prior to the redesign, 70 per cent of the store was a retail space and 20 per cent was for the dispensary, where colleagues were working in a cramped environment.

“We flipped this around with a larger dispensary that allows work to be done more effectively. Customers and colleagues love it; the dispensary is where the real magic happens. Our colleagues are more productive and we have more customers,” he says.

The pilot site also features a prescription vending machine designed for those who can’t get to a pharmacy to pick up their repeat medication during normal working hours.

Well believes such initiatives are about giving choice to customers. Ellett doesn’t see digital options as separate but part and parcel of the business. “Clearly, there is a market for people who want to get medicines online. We can bury our head in the sand as an industry and ignore it, but it is happening – and if we don’t do it, somebody else will.

“Our view is we want to continue to grow be a successful business and we believe digital is a critical component, both for us as a business and for our customers.” We want to deliver “the best experience for our patients and customers, and to do whatever it takes to make that happen”, he says.

To achieve this, technological changes are inevitable, Ellett believes. “If we want to interact digitally [with patients] or through our stores – or do both – then it is my responsibility, and ours as a business and an industry, to make sure we deliver that experience and not continue to expect the status quo in pharmacy to be successful... because it won’t be.”

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