US Pharm. 2013;38(11):1.

Last month, I attended the 115th Annual Convention and Trade Exposition of the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA). While I try to attend most of the major national association meetings throughout the year, I particularly enjoy the NCPA event because independent pharmacy is where I cut my teeth as a retail pharmacist, once owning and operating two stores. Independent pharmacy has a rich history, and while the numbers of stores have diminished somewhat over the years owing to fierce competition from chains, supermarkets, big box stores, mail-order, and a number of other pharmacy outlets, independent pharmacists are a tough bunch. Many have survived the proliferation of rival pharmacies in their neighborhoods by developing innovative ways to remain competitive and by offering a variety of services other retail pharmacy establishments may not.

With the number of prescriptions being filled increasing and profit margins being squeezed by meager managed-care reimbursements, independent pharmacists had no other choice but to devise fresh, inventive marketing tactics. In many cases, they were helped along the way by wholesalers who supplied them with many of the marketing tools and the buying power generally afforded to larger-volume pharmacies. But I believe the independents’ strength and drive to succeed was aided by their ability to reach out directly to their patients on a regular basis. In today’s brutal economic environment, sometimes even financial strength is unfortunately not enough to survive. In the last few weeks, surveys from two separate reputable research companies have confirmed this fact.

The J.D. Power 2013 U.S. Pharmacy Study revealed that “although mail-order pharmacies once held a customer satisfaction advantage over brick and mortar pharmacies mainly due to perceived cost competitiveness, satisfaction with brick and mortar pharmacies continues to increase at a faster pace.” According to Scott Hawkins, director of healthcare practice at J.D. Power, if mail-order pharmacies want to maintain their customer satisfaction advantage, they will not only have to keep up with the technological advances in retail, but will also have to see that “customer service opportunities that provide personal connections are essential as well.” Furthermore, he says, “For the most part, the widening gap in satisfaction has more to do with improved satisfaction in the brick and mortar segment than declining satisfaction in mail order.” In other words, retail pharmacists who have answered the challenge of mail-order competition by taking a more active role in face-to-face consultations are now reaping the benefits of their actions.

Another survey, the 2013 NCPA Digest, which was commissioned by NCPA, suggests that independent pharmacies are tackling the issue of medication adherence head-on. The survey showed that nearly half of all independent pharmacies offer patients adherence-counseling services, a better than 10% increase from the year before. And the number of independent pharmacies providing adherence phone calls or text reminders nearly doubled over the previous year’s. But probably the best news is that after years in decline, the number of independent pharmacies held nearly steady in 2012, and overall sales increased as pharmacy owners further diversified their business models.

To my way of thinking, this was terrific news, not only for independent pharmacists but for the profession of pharmacy in general. Patients’ trust in their pharmacists remains high, and pharmacists are once again receiving well-deserved recognition for the healthcare professionals they are. Other retail pharmacy segments should stand up and take notice of these independent thinkers….I believe they are on to something.

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