It is said we are a nation of shopkeepers. For me this was literally the case, growing up with my father, a grocery shop keeper in a small town near Glasgow. Together with my brothers, I helped out in the shop in the evenings and weekends and spent many of my school holidays there.
But I wanted to be a professional, and was interested in science, so studied pharmacy at university. I suspect being a shopkeeper’s son influenced my choice of profession. I can now say that my shopkeeping heritage helped me develop my career in community pharmacy, and many of the principles of good shopkeeping apply in our profession. So in my opinion, being a clinician in community pharmacy is akin to being a shopkeeper.
Before you gasp in disagreement, let me explain.
Principles of customer service
One of the first principles of shopkeeping is to look after your customers. This means greeting them with courtesy and warmth and making sure you're able to sell them the items they have come to your shop for. In this regard, having the right range to meet your customers’ demands and ensuring they are available is key.
In pharmacy, the customer will most likely be looking for advice and products for a health issue, but providing these follows the same principle. Delighting them with great service, which they may not have been expecting, will keep them coming back; building their loyalty and a strong bond between you.
A professional retail environment, with high standards of cleanliness and presentation, will appeal to a customer in any shop. But in pharmacy I’d suggest this is doubly important, given the link between perceived quality and cleanliness. Adhering to the General Pharmaceutical Council’s standards for premises will go a long way to presenting the kind of retail environment that customers want to see.
If the appearance of the shop is good, customers will have confidence in what’s being offered. If it’s bad, their attention will be on whether they can trust you. So trust is another major reason customers will return again and again.
During my childhood my father’s grocery store was a hub within the community, where people from the neighbourhood would come to shop, but also to meet others and have a catch-up. Community pharmacy should likewise be the hub of the community – somewhere there are friendly faces and the opportunity to have a 'blether', as they say in Scotland.
Of course, being in a retail environment means there is a business to run and many community pharmacists have this to deal with, as well as looking after their customers and patients. Again, I can confidently say that looking after the numbers will help ensure the business elements of community pharmacy are taken care of.
The areas of focus in community pharmacy, as in any other type of shop, should be control over buying (both range and cost); inventory management; keeping the right products in stock and ensuring stock levels don’t drop; cost control across the business, in key areas like staffing and other variable costs; and driving sales to maximise revenue.
A couple of huge areas of concern in community pharmacy are ensuring payments for dispensed items are accurate and keeping on top of VAT returns: get these basics right and your stress levels will be much reduced.
But times have changed since my days in my father’s shop. He had an old-fashioned cash register – a clunky piece of kit which did nothing more than add up the bill and work out the change. Nowadays technology allows much more – there are fully integrated pharmacy systems available to help with recording patient information and dispensing, right through to managing stock and ordering efficiently. I would certainly advocate using such systems to improve your business and make life as a clinician and shopkeeper more comfortable. Of course there will be investment required, but I believe it’s a no-brainer.
Finally, and probably most importantly, looking after your staff is fundamental to the running of community pharmacy, as is the case in any other shop. Ensuring you have the right people, and the right mix, to deliver the services you want to provide cannot be overlooked. Of course, training and developing your staff will ensure they are able to deliver, as well as building loyalty. Looking after your staff will ultimately pay dividends in looking after your customers and making your business a success.
I don’t intend to be controversial with my views and consider myself pragmatic enough to realise that community pharmacy is a tough environment to survive in, particularly with the current challenges being faced. Nor am I naïve enough to suggest that running a community pharmacy business is simple – there are no silver bullets in what I suggest.
I would, however, be bold enough to say that there is nothing shameful in thinking about community pharmacy as both a clinical and a retail offering, and I’d argue that the good practice principles of both overlap. There is nothing wrong with being a shopkeeper, so go ahead and embrace it.
Omar Shakoor is the pharmaceutical services director at wholesaler Mawdsleys.