We have always been an innovative pharmacy and very invested in the concept of digital healthcare. As we emerge into the ‘new normal’, initiatives we took during lockdown will evolve into longer term plans, like a digital prescription service and video consultations, all developed in response to customer needs during the height of lockdown.
While every retailer has struggled with the consequences of Covid-19, it poses a particular challenge for a pharmacy chain like McCabes Pharmacy. We pride ourselves on being part of our communities and have a unique relationship with our customers. People come into us on a weekly basis, so there is a real and meaningful connection between patients and our pharmacists. If we haven’t seen or heard from someone for a while, we will ring them up to check how they are. As a consequence we made thousands of telephone calls to our patients in the months of March and April.
Perhaps because of our elderly customer demographic, the telephone is still a favourite method of communication. During Covid-19, our pharmacists were spending more time on the phone to patients, particularly if they were elderly or immune compromised and more prone to infection. If they didn’t want to come in to pick up their medication, we’d ask if there was someone who could do it for them, or we’d make sure they knew we could deliver it directly.
Because the level of phone calls increased dramatically and our phone system struggled to handle the volume, we are now in the process of rolling out 3Connect across all our outlets. We will use it to redirect calls to mobiles or other fixed phones, and we’ll be much better prepared to handle a second wave if it ever comes. We are clear that the telephone will remain a very important channel for our customer demographic. Other changes, however, are focused on expanding digital channels.
The health profile of many of our customers, often elderly with pre-existing conditions, meant that we were highly compliant with Government guidelines during the height of the pandemic. Pharmacies were classed as an essential service and our outlets stayed open, and were made safe with social distancing rules, protective screens and sanitation points. All pharmacy staff wear face masks and sanitise their hands before and after each customer.
As a direct consequence of Covid-19, our click-and-collect service has been extended to all 27 of our pharmacies across Ireland. At the same time, we made a provision for people who were uncomfortable about entering a store. Reserved parking places were organised where our staff could hand over their prescriptions.
Increased online interaction
A lasting legacy of the pandemic will be a change in customer expectations and an increased reliance on digital services. We saw first-hand how people took to more online shopping with a spike in our website sales during lockdown.
We increased online availability of stock, putting some items on the website for the first time, and allocated extra staff to handle increased demand in our warehouse and for online support. Revenue has dropped off since the town main streets have reopened but online sales are still significantly up on what they were before. eCommerce has more than proved its worth and will be something we continue to invest in going forward.
An online pharmacist chat service has always been available to our customers but became much more popular during the height of Covid-19 lockdown. We created a rota system and made additional pharmacists available to answer questions from customers. It’s a great example of how digital can enable close human interaction when face-to-face isn’t possible.
What were critical services during the pandemic – click and collect, online shopping and online chats – are now a more important part of our business. Digital innovations across the sector, like GP’s using the HSE’s national Healthmail service to email rather than fax prescriptions to pharmacies, may never go back. And our own plan for introducing a digital prescription service has been stepped up.
Learning lessons from Covid-19
One consequence of the pandemic is how it has accelerated our digital healthcare strategy. The worst thing you can do in a crisis is bury your head in the sand and wait for it to go away; the best response is to take action and be proactive.
We did not have the luxury of learning from other businesses at the beginning of the pandemic in March and we were very much on the frontline of having to adapt incredibly quickly. By following instincts informed by close customer relationships and accelerating digital strategies that were already in place, we were able to rise to the challenge.
My biggest advice to other businesses would be to recognise how customer needs can change and the importance of adapting your business model to follow them. If you don’t, you might not survive. The pandemic has proved that. My message to customers is to please support your local Irish retailer. We have seen how important a sense of community can be and how shops of every kind are a valued part of it.