A series with best practices and lessons learned by new pharmacy owners
Tap available resources, invest in marketing and don’t expect overnight success
When customers enter Jurupa Valley Health Mart Pharmacy the pharmacist is in plain view so customers can easily walk up and ask questions. That’s what pharmacist Ekta Patel wanted when she and her husband, Santosh, decided to open an independent pharmacy.
Having worked at a chain, where she was hidden in back and felt constant pressure to fill prescriptions, leaving little time to interact with customers, Ekta Patel wanted to create a different kind of pharmacy. She wanted an atmosphere where she would always have time for customers.
Planning and expectations were also important to the Patels, who wanted to allow themselves adequate time to succeed. Their plan was to give their new pharmacy at least three years to thrive. In the worst case, Ekta knew she could always go back to working for someone else.
In January 2015, Jurupa Valley Health Mart Pharmacy began its third year.
Putting the Pieces Together
In getting Jurupa Valley Health Mart up and running, the Patels knew they had a lot to learn about starting a pharmacy. These actions helped them:
- Find available resources. When the Patels started planning their pharmacy, they didn’t know what resources were available. An online search led them to the Health Mart® website, where they found a range of resources and programs, with everything from pharmacy software to marketing options. “McKesson and Health Mart really provided us tools to be able to compete,” Ekta Patel said. Everything was available from McKesson in one place, and if the Patels asked a question, multiple people from McKesson were available to make sure they received an answer.
- Reach out to other owners. Karen Schmidt, an ownership advisor and regional vice president for RxOwnership®, gave the Patels contact information for other pharmacists in their area whom they could reach out to for advice on their experiences opening a pharmacy.
- Visit other pharmacies. Ekta Patel learned some of what not to do when she walked into other pharmacies. “Customers don’t want to see an empty store,” she said, or be told they have to wait for a prescription that isn’t in stock. (McKesson helped her decide how much inventory to order for her pharmacy opening.) Another common problem she observed was pharmacy owners trying to make do without adequate staffing at the beginning. “You might think you are saving a technician’s salary,” she said, but an inability to adequately serve customers can drive them away.
- Be friendly with the competition. A Walgreens pharmacy is located near Jurupa Valley Health Mart, and perhaps surprisingly, the staff at each pharmacy introduced themselves and developed a good relationship early on. When Walgreens is out of a medication, their staff will refer customers to Jurupa Valley Health Mart. Jurupa Valley lets its customers know that if they have a prescription that needs to be filled when their pharmacy is closed, the Walgreens is open 24/7 — and customers may be able to fill an urgent prescription there while still keeping Jurupa Valley as their primary pharmacy.
- Budget for marketing. “A large portion of our funding was for marketing” in the first year, Ekta said. That included outreach to physicians and senior care facilities, as well as advertisements at the local movie theater and on billboards.
- Health Mart provides a full range of customizable advertising templates and promotions backed by matching funds for qualified members.
- Read: “Is Your Pharmacy Investing Enough in Marketing to Attract New Customers?”
Reach Out in Multiple Directions
For marketing, the Patels planned well beyond a grand opening:
- Be persistent with physicians. You can’t just visit a doctor’s office once and expect them to refer patients, Ekta Patel said. “It has to be repetitive.” Rather than hiring someone to visit providers, Santosh Patel took on that responsibility personally. He would say, “I am the owner, and I am here to take care of you.” The pharmacy also sponsored lunches in physicians’ offices. These efforts made a big difference in leading to referrals from doctors. When one doctor recommended Jurupa Valley Health Mart for a patient, it resulted in the patient transferring the entire family’s prescriptions to Jurupa Valley.
- Be visible in the community. Santosh Patel built relationships in the community through Rotary and Chamber of Commerce groups. Jurupa Valley Health Mart Pharmacy also sets up a table each month at the potluck dinner at a nearby senior living facility. The Patels gave away goody bags with flyers, pillboxes, magnets and hand sanitizers, along with information about the pharmacy. “The main thing we sold was free delivery,” Patel said. The frequent presence of the pharmacy’s delivery vehicle reminded residents of the delivery capabilities and encouraged people to transfer their prescriptions. The pharmacy could make 10 to 15 deliveries at a time; soon virtually everyone at the facility was using Jurupa Valley Health Mart.
- Expand your services for additional revenue. The pharmacy also sponsored lunches at long-term care facilities and learned that blister packaging was very important to them. By the pharmacy’s third year, it was serving 17 LTC facilities. Patel said, “Today, 30% of our business is in blister packs.”
Allow Your Pharmacy to Evolve
Soon after they opened the pharmacy, the Patels discovered ways in which they needed to adapt their plans:
- Revamp the workplace. As the long-term care business took off, the Patels realized that although it was part of the retail pharmacy, they needed to create a separate work area and separate staff to handle that business. The records are on a separate computer system and the pharmacy added a second phone line.
- Adapt to your local community. The Patels weren’t very familiar with the neighborhood when they opened Jurupa Valley Health Mart Pharmacy and didn’t realize there was a large Spanish-speaking population. “When a Spanish-speaking customer walked in, I was helpless,” Ekta Patel said. Her first technician had pharmacy experience but didn’t speak Spanish. Later, the Patels hired a technician who spoke Spanish but didn’t have enough pharmacy experience. Now they require their technicians to be experienced and speak Spanish.
While Ekta Patel was eager to earn new customers as soon as the pharmacy opened, she suggests focusing on the value you can provide. For example, although the pharmacy offers free delivery and is happy to add OTC items to delivery, patients began asking the pharmacy to stop and pick up grocery items too. “As much as I value my customers,” Ekta said, “I want them to value us.”
What advice would you give a pharmacist buying or building a store? Share your experience in the Comments section below.
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