GROCERY STORE PHARMACISTS: SPECIALIZING IN CUSTOMER SERVICE

Author: Wendy K. Bodine, Assistant Editor, Pharmacy Times

GROCERY STORE PHARMACIES are a relatively recent phenomenon, but it did not take long for customers to realize the advantages of having their prescriptions filled in the same place they buy their other goods. Many customers appreciate the convenience of having their prescriptions filled while they do their grocery shopping, and pharmacists are able to develop good relationships with patients who are also regular shoppers. Pharmacy students who want to focus on customer service and become part of a strong community will find all that and more at their local grocery chain pharmacy.

A FAMILY HISTORY OF CUSTOMER SERVICE

A grocery chain that ranks high in the area of customer service is Wegmans. Wegmans has come a long way since John and Walter Wegman opened its flagship store in Rochester, NY, in 1930. Since then, the company has expanded to become one of the top grocery chains in the country and one of the top 10 "Best Companies to Work For" in Fortune magazine for the past 4 years.Wegmans first introduced a pharmacy into its Lyell Avenue store in Rochester in 1972, and today, all of their stores have pharmacies, many of them are open 24 hours. Their commitment to pharmacy excellence was made evident with the donation of $5 million to St. John Fisher College in Rochester to open the Robert B. Wegman School of Pharmacy in 2005. Wegmans is known for their quality in customer service, exceptional value, and, most importantly, commitment to their employees. They have 71 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, with several more slated to open in the next few years.

Robert Lautman, RPh, was the owner of his own pharmacy before he decided to join the new Wegmans that opened recently in Cherry Hill, NJ. At first, he was not sure that a large chain could deliver the kind of customer service he had been used to giving at his own store, but he was pleasantly surprised by Wegmans. "Basically, your picture of a chain pharmacy is ‘hurry up, here's your prescription, next,'but not here. Here, everyone's friendly and takes the time to help customers and answer questions." Lautman said the store offers customers workshops on health and nutrition, and the pharmacy is always adequately staffed, so there is always time for personal customer service.

Dick Standish, RPh, pharmacy manager of one of the Rochester stores, says that beginning pharmacists usually train at the central location before getting hands-on experience at their local Wegmans. They are assigned to a senior pharmacist, and depending on past pharmacy experience, can expect to train for at least 2 to 3 months. "They really look for pharmacists who know their stuff," he said, "and who also have good communication skills—being able to communicate with customers, as well as coworkers, is key." Standish also says that Wegmans offers continuing education (CE) and other educational opportunities on-line to their pharmacists.

The customer service does not stop at the store. Wegmans pharmacists also write topical articles on different health care issues for the company's Web site, so even when patients are unable to make it to the pharmacy, the pharmacists are still able to help them by sharing their knowledge online. George Amendolare, PharmD, of the Ithaca, NY, store, says that the automated system that is tied to the central Rochester location is able to help customers with minor things such as prescription refills, freeing the pharmacists up to spend more time with patients.

REACHING OUT TO THE COMMUNITY

Another chain that prides itself on customer relations is the Kroger Co. Headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kroger is one of the nation's largest grocery retailers, with over 2500 stores in 31 states, 1443 of which feature pharmacies. They operate under nearly 2 dozen banners, all of which share the same belief in building strong local ties and brand loyalty with their customers. The Kroger Co introduced the first Kroger retail food and drug combination store in 1961, and now has grown their organization to include a family of 9 brand name stores that contain pharmacies throughout the nation. Kroger's new "Food & Drug" prototype puts a mini drug store right by the main entrance for easier customer access.

Kroger offers the opportunity to combine a student's talents with the latest in pharmacy technology to offer innovative care and service to their patients. Chris Boyden, PharmD, pharmacy manager at the Lancaster, Ohio, store, tells about the kind of people Kroger is looking to hire for their pharmacies. "They should be ambitious and ready to further their pharmacy careers. Kroger promotes from within, and a beginning pharmacist can go on to become a pharmacy manager, pharmacy coordinator, and even corporate office positions. Our current head of merchandising is a licensed pharmacist."

Interns train at the corporate office for a total of 5 to 6 days at intervals, and spend their time at the pharmacy learning from another pharmacist on a one-on-one basis. The stores are adequately staffed, so students do not feel rushed during their training. Kroger also offers live CEs 4 times a year, as well as encouraging their pharmacists to avail themselves to other educational opportunities.

Kroger is also involved in community outreach, offering free on-site screenings for their patients for blood sugar, bone density, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. Each Kroger pharmacist is also a licensed immunizer, so they are able to offer patients on-site flu shots as well. The store supports the efforts of their pharmacists to reach out to their communities as well, such as nursing home visits to educate patients who may not be able to come to an onsite screening.

The company also sponsors the Kroger Patient Care Centers, which function as an extension of the dispensing pharmacy. The centers provide an outreach that serves the community by providing an expanded level of pharmaceutical care. This includes wellness and screening services for diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and osteoporosis. In addition, disease state management programs provide pharmacists the opportunity to work with other health care professionals to help patients better manage their chronic diseases.