Many supermarket operators are big proponents of the role pharmacists play in stores. So it’s surprising that a contentious debate is now raging about how much value retail pharmacists bring.
Late last month the National Association of Chain Drug Stores blasted the CEO of pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts, George Paz, for “comments that disparage pharmacists.”
In a conference call with analysts, Paz had remarked about the end of a contract with Walgreens, which had filled Express Scripts prescriptions, according to an AP story. “At the end of the day … Nexium is Nexium, Lipitor is Lipitor, drugs are drugs, and it shouldn’t matter that much who’s counting to 30,” Paz said.
NACDS responded in a press release that pharmacists would be outraged “at any incorrect and derogatory suggestion that they merely count pills.” The association said Paz’s statement evokes remarks last fall by David Snow, CEO of Medco, another PBM, who, according to trade press reports, dismissed the notion that retail pharmacists engage with customers and contended that Medco’s “robots” are “23 times more accurate” than human pharmacists.
It’s amazing this topic is being raised at all given the positive impact pharmacists are having in stores. Consider that Meijer has placed a diabetes care pharmacist in every store. Consider that Piggly Wiggly South Carolina has featured grocery items at the pharmacy counter with signage encouraging shoppers to discuss health benefits with pharmacists.
A crucial factor fueling this debate is the proposed merger of Medco and Express Scripts, a deal that would create a giant PBM. This combination is opposed by NACDS and organizations including Food Marketing Institute. FMI has contended the merger would destroy competition.
Let’s put aside the merger topic for now and recognize pharmacists are playing an important supermarket role.
But this isn’t just about pharmacists. Supermarkets should further enhance and promote a wide range of in-store roles — everything from dietitian to produce clerk — to improve service and make it harder for anyone to question the value of the in-store experience.
If customers view these and other roles favorably, it will be more challenging for anyone — from a pure-play online retailer to a nontraditional food retailer — to downgrade the supermarket experience in making a competitive pitch.
That’s a prescription worth trying because it goes to the heart of defending the viability of supermarkets in a shifting landscape.