FEATURE: A Step Forward
Some of the Best in the Great Northwest
The author’s journey through the Northwest, visiting pharmacies to see how the independent spirit is alive and well.
Yogi Berra, the famous Yankee baseball player and oft-quoted philosopher, once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Since I get to watch a lot of pharmacies, I would like to make an observation — that being, based on a two-week road trip I took in April, community pharmacy is alive and well, and the future looks bright!
How can I say that? Because in April I drove 2,331 miles and visited 11 remarkable pharmacies that, despite low third-party reimbursement, egregious audits, and hostile PBM practices, are doing quite well.
What follows are short vignettes in which I highlight one or two things that the managers at each these pharmacies do to help them succeed. The trip was organized to make sure I saw stores in urban, suburban, and rural locations, and within a variety of economic and demographic conditions. The hope is that as you read these short summaries you’ll find an idea or two you can adopt or modify to meet your unique circumstance and use to help you grow your practice.
This road trip took place April 15–26, 2013, and was sponsored by the Independent Pharmacy Cooperative (IPC). The purpose of the trip was to uncover strategies successful pharmacy owners use and to share them with ComputerTalk readers. It should be noted that while IPC sponsored the trip and helped identify some of the pharmacies visited, it did so without regard to IPC membership; indeed, only five of the 11 pharmacies visited were IPC members. I wish to thank IPC for making this trip possible.
Lind’s Freeland Pharmacy
Ron Lind, R.Ph., owns two pharmacies on Whidbey Island just north of Seattle. The island is home to 60,000 residents, as well as to several chain, mass merchant, and grocery store pharmacies.
Lind’s flagship store in Freeland is an impressive 17,000-square-foot facility. He recognizes that the primary competitive advantage of the store is the pharmacy, and he staffs it with professionals who provide the extra attention people in a small town expect. To help with this, the pharmacy has a QS/1 pharmacy system and POS coupled to a voiceTech IVR and ScriptPro robot.
To set his pharmacy apart Lind is also a retailer, and constantly looks for ways to bring in products or services that will serve his current customers well and give them reasons to recommend his store to others. To keep the store properly merchandised, he and his wife, Pam,
spend six weeks a year at various trade shows.
Take, for example, jewelry. Lind says it all started because they sold costume jewelry. Next, they added fine watches. Pretty soon they were bringing in real jewelry — with gold and diamonds. Then they added a jeweler and started doing repairs and creating their own custom-designed items.
One thing that immediately jumped out at me in the jewelry department was the large number of items in the jewelry workroom. It is clear that the unique selling proposition for their jewelry department is the repair and custom design work they do, as people have a need for the repair and resetting of their finer items or commission a unique piece of their own. Intrigued? Check it out at www.lindsjewelry.com.
Success doesn’t happen by accident. Lind understands the need to advertise, and he does this in several ways. He has a contract with his local newspaper and runs an ad every week, rotating various features of his store along with coupons for the special of the week. The store provides ample fodder for ads, as it has gifts, kitchenware, toys (a great assortment of those), DME, OTCs, books, a full-service photo department, and women’s clothing.
His latest promotion supports the pharmacy and introduces the Healthy Savings Plus Prescription Card. Designed in-house, the program boldly announces the availability of 400 generic drugs for $1 a week each for a 90-day supply and also includes discounts on private-label products and other store services.
Janet Kusler, R.Ph., and her partner Mary Pat Connors own a 4,000-square-foot pharmacy in the Seattle suburb of Snohomish, Wash. The exterior of the pharmacy provides a great first impression that only gets enhanced when one walks in the front door. It is clear these two women understand the importance of curb appeal.
While Kusler’s features a well-merchandised front end, with gifts, kitchenware, fine chocolates, and OTCs, it is clear that clinical care is the primary focus of the pharmacy. Kusler and her staff wear white lab coats, and the compounding lab is visible to all who come to the pharmacy counter.
Kusler knew from the outset that compounding would be the differentiator, and proudly mentions her PCCA (Professional Compounding Centers of America) affiliation. One thing she says she does in regard to compounding is to make sure she works with prescribers, not against them. She says perhaps the most important asset she has is that her prescribers trust her to prepare compounds that stay away from questionable ingredients or processes. Her highest compliment, she says, comes when a doctor calls her and says, “Please call so-and-so, and after you visit with her let me know what I should prescribe.”
But the truly unique thing Kusler has done is to expand her immunization service and take it to a full-blown travel services practice. Under the direct supervision of Dawn Ipsen, Pharm.D., they devised a 24-page collaborative practices agreement and got it approved by the state board, signed by a prominent physician, and approved by their liability insurance provider. This lets them provide a service that includes review of the needs of travelers tailored to the location they are visiting; deliver and document the proper vaccinations; prescribe appropriate medications to prevent malaria or traveler’s diarrhea; and provide other health-related supplies the traveler may need. They have a cognitive services fee they charge for the full-blown service.
Kusler says that while the direct financial impact of the travel service is minimal, it covers the costs of the program. Providing the service adds to the overall philosophy of her entire practice: “Take care of the community.” She says that providing the service fits nicely with her compounding and dispensing practice and provides reasons for patients and doctors to recommend her pharmacy.
Brewster Drug, in Brewster, Wash., is a truly unique retail operation. Until two years ago the now-current owner, Brian Johnson, Pharm.D., served as the director of pharmacy in this rural town’s community health clinic. During that time he developed a relationship with Ron Anderson, R.Ph., the former owner. As Anderson was looking to sell, Johnson fulfilled his contract with the clinic and purchased the store, which houses the only retail pharmacy for 20 or more miles in any direction.
This is a 10,000-square-foot True Value store with pharmacy (complete with drive-up window) that supplies much of the merchandising needs for this community: hardware, farm/ag supplies, toys, cards, and gifts, as well as packaged foods and seasonal and general merchandise. When asked, Johnson says his primary goals are to provide the community with a place they can do “one-stop shopping and to keep my prices as low as possible.”
To do this he buys from more than a dozen suppliers but lists McKesson, True Value, and Promotions Unlimited as the major ones. He says his staff consciously works to find the best price “this time” among items available from multiple suppliers. Johnson says doing this takes extra time, but he feels it pays off by allowing him to save his customers a few dollars on essential items.
The pharmacy is busy and is supported by a Pharmaserve pharmacy system, a Parata robot, and a TeleManager IVR. An Epicor POS supports the front end, which in this case is a meaningful part of the store’s consumer appeal. Johnson says another thing that helps in the pharmacy is being able to accept electronic prescriptions from the dozen or so doctors who staff the small hospital and care for his customers. “Most of the time, we can have a patient’s prescription done before they arrive, which eliminates waiting and allows me to focus on counseling,” he says.
Johnson brings a couple of personal attributes that serve him well as he tackles the challenges of ownership. First, he is pleasant and outgoing. During my visit he made several trips from behind the counter to help a patient with a question or product recommendation. And he speaks Spanish. This is a bonus, as Brewster has a large number of Spanish-speaking residents whose numbers expand several times a year with seasonal laborers who work in the apple and cherry tree orchards that are the economic backbone of the area.
Kettle Falls Pharmacy
One trend I have noticed over the past couple of years is the number of nonpharmacists who own pharmacies. Kevin Herda is one of these. Herda owns three pharmacies in central Washington. His grandfather and father were pharmacists, and he has taken over and expanded on what they started, using his business degree to help this small chain prosper.
I met with Herda in his pharmacy in Kettle Falls, where it was apparent he has become proficient in both pharmacy and retailing. To build prescription sales he networks with local doctors; indeed, his third pharmacy, which he started from scratch, was done at the behest of a few doctors who felt the need for a pharmacy of his type in their small town.
Herda says he attracts pharmacists by offering them a competitive wage, and then trumps the chains by giving them a say in the practice, along with the tools they need (a Parata robot, an HBS pharmacy system, and TeleManager IVR) and hours they want (closed Sundays). He sends his pharmacists out to consult with the local Native American tribes one day a week. The pharmacists find this rewarding, and it also builds pharmacy sales as he serves the tribes with a no-postage-fee mail-order service. He also contracts for 340B services to the tribes.
But Herda’s sweet spot is as a business owner and merchant. He says he loves going to trade shows to find new things he can bring in that appeal to his customers. The Kettle Falls store is well laid out, and the two larger stores, the one in Kettle Falls and the flagship store in neighboring Chewelah, have been remodeled to expand popular departments while shrinking others. The remodeling also made the stores brighter and more inviting. The stores attract customers with a monthly circular and billboard, and provide them with photo developing and a free gift-wrapping service.
Herda believes that to succeed it is important to get involved in community issues. He sits on the board of the Chamber of Commerce and chaired the school district’s efforts to get voter permission to pass a capital improvement bond effort — a task about which he frowns as he says the effort failed, but then smiles as he says they will try again in the near future. He also is a big proponent of the “shop local” campaign and wishes more locally owned businesses would join in this initiative. Small changes in consumers spending behavior can make a huge difference in the community, he says.
Cheney Owl Pharmacy
Fritz McGinnis, R.Ph., owns four pharmacies in the Spokane area. The store I visited is a community icon, as the pharmacy opened in 1889. McGinnis purchased it in 1971. It is large — just over 5,000 square feet — with a full basement used to warehouse items for this and other stores in the chain.
McGinnis clearly understands he is in both the pharmacy and retail business, and has found ways to weave these two together to better serve patients and build sales. For example, on more than one occasion during our interview he said, “The core business here is pharmacy, but if people like shopping here, they will come back.”
To ensure people like shopping with him, he makes sure his employees like working there. I was introduced to several people who have been with him for 20 years or more. When asked how he gets and keeps good people, he says he provides competitive wages and benefits (he offers a 401(k) plan and medical benefits). But more important, he says, “is quality of life.” So he finds ways to make sure people can get time off for significant events such as school plays or church gatherings.
McGinnis is also a marketer. Not a fancy type, but a roll-up-your-sleeves and “get it done” type of guy.
He artfully merchandises toys, women’s apparel, and other items that bring people to the store. He says the toys are popular with grandparents looking to bring something special to a sick child. And he ties into community events. For example, this year’s high school prom had a masquerade party theme, so he had an end cap of party masks and promoted them on his outdoor changeable letters sign.
He also produces handbills to promote special products, services, and events. None of them would win awards on Madison Avenue, but he says they do the job of bringing people into his store. Then, he says, finding ways to have merchandise that people want on the shelves is important, so he programmed an iPad that lets him walk his shelves and better manage his inventory. McGinnis realizes personal attention to consumers is critical and trains his people to go the extra mile. He points with some pride to being recognized for best customer service for a mid-sized business by the West Plains Chamber of Commerce.
The Medicine Man chain is a collection of nine apothecary pharmacies in the Idaho panhandle area. The group has done an impressive job of branding its company and creating a presence in the area. You’d be
well-served to check out its web page: www.medmanpharmacy.com.
Barry Feely, R.Ph., is one of the partners, and I visited his store in Hayden. Joining me on the visit was his partner, Don Smith, R.Ph., and talking with both of these well-seasoned pharmacy owners made me think I was talking to two newly minted Pharm.D.s, as they shared examples of some of the things they are doing.
For example, they sponsor and aggressively promote monthly health classes held at the local community center. The content changes each month and is supported by presentations and handouts made available from a company their wholesaler has recommended. The classes are promoted on television and with bag clippers and an impressive email and Facebook campaign.
Feely and Smith showed me their plans for remodeling the store to expand their on-site medication review efforts. They brought out new marketing materials in development to support a medication compliance program that will draw on the power of a new Parata PASS unit scheduled to be delivered next month. These guys are excited about the future of pharmacy and are investing heavily in it.
As I was about to leave, Feely said he wanted to show me one more thing. This turned out to be (with the exception of their enthusiasm) the most impressive thing I saw and one I would invite every pharmacy to consider, modify, and deploy: their URock employee development program.
The genius of the program is its simplicity. Staff members are given a set of URock tickets and then trained on how to spot and immediately recognize exceptional service. When they see another staff member doing something noteworthy, they fill in the person’s name, the date of the event, and a one-word reason for giving him or her the ticket. They then award that co-worker between 500 to 1,000 points, depending on how remarkable the event was. The points are “booked,” and as they accumulate can be redeemed for a cash bonus. The core philosophy is that good behavior noticed and rewarded will be repeated.
Well, this is the halfway point. The next five stores will be featured in the September/October issue of ComputerTalk and include a few closing comments and observations gleaned from the trip. CT
Bruce Kneeland, a national account manager at Epicor Software Solutions, contributed this article to ComputerTalk. He can be reached at email@example.com.