Filling a Need: The Retail Scene at Drugstores

As essential business during the coronavirus pandemic, drugstores have been as busy as ever —and pharmacists have found ways to supply patrons with the shampoos, soaps and holiday novelties they still want and need. Curbside pickup, drive-thru windows and mail delivery have been among the strategies in use at many drugstores.
“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” said Mona Ghattas, owner of Duran Central Pharmacy in Albuquerque, N.M., in an April interview. In the early days of the COVID-19 panic, customers clamored for tools to manage the health threat: thermometers, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, Kleenex, and disinfectant wipes.

A selection of gift books at Duran Central Pharmacy in Albuquerque, N.M. In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, customers clamored for tools to manage the health threat such as thermometers, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, Kleenex, and disinfectant wipes.

Duran, like most other retailers, sold out of all those items in March and sells out again every couple of days when her wholesale suppliers restock. A friend made face masks to sell at the drugstore. Candy was popular around Easter, but a more reliable category has been supplements to aid sleep, pain or immunity. In addition to its large retail and gift section, Duran also houses a restaurant, and take-out meals have been popular with locked down locals who are tired of cooking, Ghattas reported.
Extra demand, however, did not translate to extra profits. Ghattas described COVID-19 retail as exhaustingly labor-intensive. “I had to split up the staff for safety purposes, with crews on alternating days,” she said, explaining that if one crew gets sick, the other is still available. But handling normal pharmacy demand with half the staff has taken its toll — especially with the retail section closed and online orders filled through delivery and curbside pickup.
“With this model, three businesses in one, it was a little challenging at first,” said Ghattas. “We’ve got to get their payment information over the phone beforehand, and then run the order out to them.” Doing so with skeleton crews has only made the process more exhausting.

Lori Navarrete, front end sales clerk, Hutton Pharmacy in Blackwell, Okla. Navarrete is responsible for the majority of the store’s displays.

To make all this work, Ghattas had to create websites overnight for both the retail and the restaurant offerings, so that purchases could be contact-free. “On the cash flow side, it’s been a bit of a crunch,” Ghattas admitted. She explained that such transformations required significant investment that won’t be repaid anytime soon.
“It’s incredibly difficult,” agreed Clark Bishop, owner at Hutton Pharmacy in Blackwell, Okla. Bishop was able to secure government loans to help subsidize payroll, but his staff is still scrambling to deliver gift baskets and package orders for curbside pickup. With the store closed for browsing, Bishop has had to post more aggressively on social media to get customers to be inspired to buy non-essentials like the Bare Minerals cosmetics that are a longtime customer favorite.

A merchandise display at Hutton Pharmacy. Makeup, skincare, haircare and supplements were selling well for the store despite the pandemic.

Makeup, skincare, haircare and supplements are selling well on the retail side of the store. Bishop attributed this to both the fact that such products can be habit-forming, and the urge toward self care when nesting at home. “To succeed in this business climate, you’ve got to think outside of the box, and really use social media,” Bishop noted.
Most customers are coming through the drive-thru at Stilwell Pharmacy in Stilwell, Okla., where Store Manager Donna Ledford makes sure staff wear masks and gloves and wipes down surfaces constantly with Lysol. And by early April, drive-thru was the only option for shoppers at Lakeside Pharmacy in Eufaula, Okla. “We sterilize everything in here, after every use,” said Pharmacist James Dixon. “We all use hand sanitizer and take precautions, and then we go about our business as usual.”

Jewelry and other merchandise inventively displayed in an old suitcase at Hutton Pharmacy. While the store was closed to browsing, the owner posted merchandise to social media to generate interest.

The most requested items this spring were hand sanitizer, thermometers, and other flu season basics that sold out quickly and were difficult to restock, Dixon added. Customers also bought lots of cold medicines, Tylenol and other over-the-counter painkillers, foregoing novelties in favor of essentials. 
At Blanchard Drug & Gift in Blanchard, Okla., Pharmacist Keaton Hasty was disinfecting the drive-thru area hourly, “trying to take that extra step to stop the spread,” he explained. The 1,000-square-foot store set up a window display for Easter and other spring occasions, hoping to inspire prescription shoppers to add on gifts.

A view of a sales floor at Duran Central Pharmacy. The owner split the staff for safety purposes for the pandemic, with crews working on alternating days.

While most customers head for the pickup window, Blanchard has also adapted to curbside delivery and mail orders. “We let people know that we’ll take their order out to the car, and that we offer all our merchandise through the drive-thru window, not just prescriptions,” Hasty said.

A display of socks at Duran Central Pharmacy. The owner was forced to create websites overnight to handle both the retail and the restaurant sides of the pharmacy.

To get the word out, Blanchard hastily set up a website and is advertising on Facebook. “The situation is making us focus more on online sales and how to market ourselves when they’re not walking through the store,” Hasty said.
That kind of flexibility, reflected Ghattas, is necessary to survive the 2020 retail scene. “Retailers need to get ready,” she advised. “They need to think about how to do business differently.” When the pandemic ebbs, she added, “people will have new habits. It won’t be like a light switch, back to normal.”

An exterior view of the Hutton Pharmacy. The owner was able to secure government loans to subsidize his payroll.

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