First impressions count. Pharmacists say the food store customer's initial exposure to the pharmacy is likely to be through the first-aid department.
By assisting customers with first-aid products, pharmacists can establish a level of trust that may lay the groundwork for expanding the pharmacy's base of prescription drug patients. It's worth making an extra effort to reach out to these customers, pharmacists say, to make that all-important good first impression.
Such confidence-building efforts "are very important," says Charles Scott, pharmacist at The Apothecary, located in the Brazoric County Stores Food Market, Brazoric, Texas. "If we can ease the patient's fears in helping them select bandages and other first-aid products, they'll trust us with their prescriptions."
"If we provide customers with a product and services that make them feel better, they'll come back to our pharmacy," agrees Scott Buchanan, pharmacy manager at Dan's Foods, Salt Lake City. The category also is showing strong growth. Towne-Oller & Associates, New York, a division of Information Resources Inc., Chicago, reported sales of first-aid topical products up 20% in 1993. In addition, retailers' margins on these products can average 30% or better.
Most supermarkets with pharmacies devote 8 to 10 feet to a first-aid product section that includes bandages, creams such as hydrocortisones and Neosporin, lip balms, rubbing alcohol and epsom salts. Typically, such sections are positioned close to the pharmacy, either next to the pharmacy, in front of it or across an aisle.
The section also may include more specialized items such as anti-inflammatory topical creams, wrist and elbow braces, and eye preparations, although sometimes these are kept inside the pharmacy.
"We try to supplement what they're doing in health and beauty care with items that they might not be able to purchase or have room for," by stocking some items in the pharmacy, says Leonard Bolog, pharmacy manager at Thrifty Food Stores, Burlington, Wash. "Plus, some of these products don't move as quickly as they'd like them to on the floor."
Despite the familiarity of the minor maladies treated by these over-the-counter first-aid products, patients regularly turn to a pharmacist for counsel.
"People usually think they know what the problem is," says Bolog, "but we still get a tremendous amount of inquiries because they'll want a recommendation on what to use for treatment."
"Customers usually like to come to us and ask," says Bonnie Beale, pharmacist at a Discount Drugs pharmacy located inside a store operated by E.W. James & Sons, Union City, Tenn. "Even when they're fairly familiar with a product, they like to get an expert's opinion."
Much of this solicited advice is about injuries that most often occur among children and weekend athletes.
"They're the ones who are always playing around," says Bolog, "so naturally they're the ones who get a little banged up."
Pharmacists also counsel more serious cases, such as postoperative patients seeking advice about the use of gauze products, says Scott. "These patients have wounds that need to drain. So they need a variety of gauze sponges and pads, and a lot of advice as they recover."
Regardless of an injury's severity, pharmacists remain cautious when recommending treatments.
"I always try to help," says Bob Fish, pharmacist at a Genuardi Super Markets store in King of Prussia, Pa. "But if a problem seems at all serious, I tell them to contact their physician."
Pharmacists also prefer to augment their advice with literature describing common conditions and proper treatments.
"Even after you go over something once in the store," Fish says, "a pamphlet is important because I don't think that everything can possibly stick with a patient the first time and you never know what complications may arise."
"We've distributed information on poison ivy and poison oak, and customers have found it very useful," says Buchanan.
Unfortunately, constraints on space often limit or even preclude displays of literature, much of it supplied by manufacturers, that describe how to use first-aid products and the various conditions such products treat.
Dan's Foods, for example, only displays materials that are small enough to fit on the sales counter, says Buchanan. "Brochures are fine," he says, "but regular-sized [8.5 x 11-inch] paper is too big."
"We used to have an information rack," adds Bolog, "but unfortunately we had to take it down because of space considerations."
Overall, summer is the busiest season for first-aid products, say pharmacists. The warmer months create a demand for antiseptics and other products to treat sunburn and bee stings. Increased outdoor activity also contributes to more sales of bandages and other remedies both to treat and in anticipation of cuts and scrapes.
"People always need the standards," Fish says, "but they become very popular during the summer because people are coming in to stock their first-aid kits for camping and other outdoor activities."
Despite these variations, pharmacists say the range of products stocked on the selling floor remains fairly consistent throughout the year, with only the quantity displayed and sold fluctuating with demand. Seasonal merchandising tends to be minimal, they say.
"What we carry stays pretty steady," says Bolog. "The amount of each product that we maintain on the shelves is the only thing that ever varies." For instance, Thrifty stocks hydrocortisone year-round but increases its inventory in anticipation of summer, Bolog explains.
"Volumes fluctuate as the seasons come and go," says Fish. "But except for suntan lotions, our inventory stays pretty stable."
In hopes of increasing sales, several manufacturers have created specialized products and packaging, such as children's bandages sporting cartoon characters, although many pharmacists doubt the lasting effectiveness of this approach.
"That's an old trick [to appeal to children]," says Fish, "but I've never found these types of products to be that popular with parents, and they're the ones that make the final buying decisions."
"Most of these purchases come after the fact," says another pharmacist who asked not to be named, "so special packaging doesn't seem to matter much. People want convenience and advice rather than gimmicks," he explains.
When confronted with in-store first-aid situations, pharmacists again preach caution. "I haven't had any emergency situations apart from a few customers fainting in the store," says Buchanan. "In those cases, I'll just put a blanket over the person and call for help."
Bolog recommends the same approach with more serious situations, such as parking lot mishaps.
"If someone is hit or falls," he says, "the best you can do is pack the area, call 911 and try to care for the person in the interim."