Caitlin Sorrell, managing director of independent pharmacy support group Alphega, tells The Pharmacist’s deputy editor Beth Kennedy that the future’s bright for independents – if they’re open to opportunities

It hasn’t been an easy few months for UK community pharmacy. Without the support of a large chain of stores, independent pharmacies in particular are still licking the wounds caused by a series of financial setbacks – namely, over £320m in cuts to English community pharmacy funding and a category M clawback.

But according to Caitlin Sorrell, managing director of Alphega – a Europe-wide membership group providing support for independent pharmacies – the future is not as bleak as it may seem. From tailoring services to meet your customers’ individual needs to rethinking your pharmacy’s layout to maximise sales, Sorrell is convinced that independents still have what it takes to weather the storm.

What should independent pharmacies focus on to stay ahead in this challenging financial market?

The thing that independents can deliver even better than chains can is the individual connection with the customer. And that is the thing that will enable them to differentiate, and keep their customers locked in and coming back. It’s the thing that, in a well-run independent pharmacy, is the most heartwarming to see. I’ve visited pharmacies, sometimes in fairly deprived areas, where a queue of people will be coming in and the dispenser greets them all by name. That level of knowledge and real personal connection to customers is one of the key ways in which independents can continue to thrive, even in difficult economic circumstances.

That would be the one thing I would say to independents: make sure you know your customers and connect with them. But that doesn’t just mean saying hello and goodbye. Getting to know customers and having that link with them is obviously really important.

From a more structural perspective, I think there are two areas that are absolutely key to being able to develop your business as an independent pharmacy. One is making sure you are not totally dependent on prescriptions, but you’ve also grown your front of store. The other aspect is developing services. Make sure you are driving your front of store and services. Don’t just sit back and think that prescriptions will magically fall into your lap. Really drive that relationship with customers. That is a winning formula.

It can cost a lot to implement new services because of factors such as training. What would you say to pharmacies that are reluctant to develop new services because of the uncertain financial climate?

The other challenge I hear from independent pharmacies isn’t so much the cost of training the team – it is the time required.

There are three things. There’s the cost we’ve talked about, almost the biggest excuse – I’m not sure it really holds water. The second factor is time and the third is confidence.

Not all of our pharmacists and pharmacy teams are confident enough to proactively approach customers and invite them to think about services. Confidence, again, links back to training and to getting the right support, and making sure you’ve got the right tools that you’re familiar with and are confident to use.

As for the time excuse – I haven’t yet walked into a pharmacy that was so impeccably run that there wasn’t time that could be saved somewhere. One thing I very often see is pharmacists chasing around for purchasing options to save every last penny on a box of medication. I would urge them to think about the time they’re spending and the return on investment they’re getting for that time. Investing that time in talking to customers, getting customers to come back, driving that loyalty but also getting them to try new services, is probably a better return on investment than chasing every last penny on a pack.

What kind of factors should you look at when deciding what new services to bring in to your pharmacy?

The first thing Alphega looks at is how many people are going to be interested in a new service. We could develop a great service for patients with alopecia, but patients with alopecia might not be a large percentage of the pharmacy’s customer base. We look at services that are relevant to the highest number of people in the population. Then we make sure that it’s something that consumers are actually interested in and want to see happen. It has to be something they can’t currently get elsewhere – something that they see value in.

Alphega operates right across Europe. What could UK independent community pharmacists learn from their European counterparts?

Your average UK pharmacist is still more confident in offering services than their European counterparts, although the Czechs, the Romanians and the Spanish are catching up and we’ll probably see them overtake the UK for offering services.

But the thing that European pharmacies do better is the environment. Generally, when you walk into a European pharmacy, the emphasis is a lot more on healthcare and the environment will generally be more clinical and yet more welcoming. I would urge UK pharmacists to look at how they can spruce up their pharmacies and make sure that the face they’re presenting to the customer is really welcoming and professional.

One of my personal pet hates is a load of junk in the window, which to me doesn’t exactly say, ‘come in and you’ll be treated by a healthcare professional’. It’s about good retail discipline; clear layout of categories and products, not just piling everything onto the shelves in the hope that it’s going to stimulate sales. Likewise, making sure that the outside of your pharmacy is clear and neat is important.

What would you say are some key challenges for UK independent pharmacies at the moment?

Clearly, the cuts to pharmacy funding are probably the biggest threat to pharmacies right now. But even with that, I would urge pharmacists, before they get too down in the mouth, to look at whether they’re maximising everything they can currently maximise financially. From memory, there’s up to £6,400 that pharmacies can earn from the Quality Payments Scheme and I would challenge whether every single pharmacy is making the most of that. I would also ask, are they offering all the services they can currently offer? Are they making sure they’re accessing all the funding that is currently available? For me, when a pharmacist doesn’t do all of those things, they’re already not taking all of the money that is on the table.

Do you think there’s a balance to be struck there? Medicines use reviews (MURs) drew heavy criticisms last year [after some pharmacists were accused of offering them to patients unnecessarily to boost their bottom lines].

Of course. I’m not saying you should push MURs or the new medicines service (NMS) onto every patient who walks through the door, but my mother-in-law recently asked me if there was any way she could get someone to check her medication and find out whether all of it was still necessary.

I had to laugh and say, ‘yes, it’s called an MUR and you can go into a pharmacy and they can do that for you’. She’s a nurse and she’s married to a doctor, so it was quite shocking to me that she didn’t already know that.

There are still enough people who would benefit from the service who haven’t received it – we don’t need to start offering it to people who don’t need it.

What are some other opportunities that independents can make the most of at the moment?

The first is not just seeing services as those that the Government currently offers remuneration for.

One of our most successful services across Europe is the vascular age service, which is a purely preventive pre-screening service and is basically about assessing your cardiovascular health risk. Now, we’re not saying that this is a diagnostic tool on a par with what a cardiologist could give you, but we’re saying it’s a good way of engaging with customers who want to be more proactive about their health. We can talk to them about diet and lifestyle changes, and also look at vitamins and supplements.

It’s not just about looking at current NHS services, it’s also about looking at what you can do for patients who want to engage with their healthcare and be more proactive.

Whenever people say that consumers in the UK are not willing to pay for healthcare, I always give the example of a runner. If you asked a runner whether they would pay to run, they would say no, of course not. But look at the amount of money they spend on trainers, on entering races and particularly on supports, trackers and glucosamine. And all of those people are perfectly fit and healthy, but with a desire to engage in their proactive health.

There are lots of people out there who perhaps don’t visit pharmacies regularly, who pharmacists should reach out to, to
try and get them to view pharmacy as a great place for proactive and preventive healthcare access.

Do you think UK pharmacy could learn something about the balance between retail and healthcare that European pharmacies are known for? For example, European pharmacies are known for selling high-end cosmetics.

Absolutely. If you go into a European pharmacy, they are able to sell high-end cosmetics because of one of two things.

One, because of the shop environment. As I said earlier, the environment is bright and clinical and generally more conducive to that high-end purchase.

But also, because the range they select is in keeping with their clinical credentials. For example, you won’t find colour cosmetics very often in a French or an Italian pharmacy. You will find products that have strong claims and are in pharmacies for a reason.

So I would absolutely say that UK pharmacies could develop their front of store more and do more on the cosmetics side of things. But I would also urge them to understand that they are a clinical space and when I recommend developing their retail space, that doesn’t mean filling it with opportunistic buys they think they can make a quick buck on. I’m not advocating bringing back jewellery and a load of gift material. I’m talking about making sure there’s a reason why that product is in the pharmacy and there’s a reason why a consumer would go to a pharmacy for that product. It has to be backed up by advice.

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Fact file: Caitlin Sorrell

Became managing director of Alphega Europe

Named business development manager at Boots International

Named director of Alphega Pharmacy Europe

Named director of marketing at Alphega Pharmacy Europe