Pharmacy is not an industry associated with rapid change. The nature of the product sold, quality assurance and onerous administration have made it difficult for pharmacists to get their heads up and look to future-proof their business. Industry groups have long talked of the need for digital transformation, but progress has been slow. Yet, retailers are leaving the high street at a pace we have not seen before and online is now where business migration is consolidating. Amazon have just announced their move to pharmacy. Their online strategy and business to date has been very successful, so one can only assume that the move to pharmacy will be equally fruitful. But what does that mean for Ireland’s pharmacists?

Over 2 years ago, CarePlus Pharmacy – owned by the Navi Group from which ScreenVend emerged – forecast changes on the industry’s horizon and set about preparing to face them – be different or run the risk of competitive disadvantage.

It was time to examine how the industry was evolving across the world. Technology was coming to the fore in international retail pharmacy models. Robots were being put to wider use across the globe. Screen technology was appearing in more outlets. Yet, in Ireland, relatively nothing of note in terms of digitising the customer offering while driving pharmacy efficiencies in parallel had shown up anywhere.

John Carroll, the CEO of CarePlus Pharmacy, figured that these innovations could tackle some of the perennial problems in Irish pharmacies, such as errors, operational inefficiencies, date rotation, theft/shrinkage, live-stock counts, labour costs and a feeling that pharmacists were “trapped” behind the counter – under-utilised – while also helping move the sector towards the digital age.

John Carroll tasked the CarePlus in-house team with combining screen and robot innovations to create a new concept. A 12 -strong cross-functional team worked on the project that commenced in May 2019. The belief was that cutting-edge technology could be designed to fulfil certain tasks, freeing up staff to do what machines couldn’t – build relationships with customers and become trusted advisers within their communities.

Fast forward through many months of development of a bespoke platform and software, plus buying a top-of-the-range Gollmann robot, and the first Gen2 CarePlus Pharmacy was unveiled in May 2020 in Dunboyne, County Meath.

At first glance, the main difference is the absence of cluttered shelves and product displays on the shop floor. Screens around the store are either self-navigated or staff-assisted and enable customers to choose from a full range of over-the-counter products, vitamins and beauty products from a series of easy-to-navigate virtual shelves. There is virtually no stock on display. Practically everything on sale in the pharmacy is in the robot, which is a first anywhere in the world.

CarePlus uses the ScreenVend software system, which offers multiple omni-channel opportunities. Customers are already familiar with online retail and this in-store experience mirrors that, while supporting easy product selection and promoting sales opportunities. The system is designed to recreate an “online” experience in store. The effect is to empower the customer to buy, while maintaining the patient safety required in the pharmacy environment. CarePlus plan to roll out ScreenVend onto mobile platforms in early 2021. This will enable customers to place and collect prescriptions and orders from the pharmacy through an ATM-like device, 24 hours a day.

In-store, the screens and dispensing system are linked to a large Gollmann robot at the rear of the store, which brings chosen products to the point of sale, via a specially designed chute system which can deliver product to multiple points in the store. The robot can store up to 20,000 individual items in an incredibly efficient manner, all of which are accessible through a click on the screen or via the dispensary system.

The combined system frees up the pharmacist to do what they were trained to do – help and advise customers. The pioneering concept provides a robust, secure and efficient way to meet customers’ needs.

Pharmacists who make the transition to a Gen2 store will see benefits including growth in average basket size and value, as well as an increase in their non-ethical margin. OTC medicine sales have been shown to record a significant pick-up.  Rates of stock loss (thought to run at >10%) and damages fall, while the robotic system ensures expiry date concerns and other errors do not occur. For perhaps the first time, business owners can look forward to a perfect till reconciliation at the end of each day.

The cost of the equipment and the return on investment case is something that all pharmacists should look at. He goes on to say that he believes that this latest generation of pharmacy is an attractive prospect, given the savings, stock control, peace of mind and future-proofing it provides for pharmacists across the country. Many in the community have already anticipated the need to step up their offerings, but the development costs alone would be prohibitive for a standalone operator. ScreenVend offers an exclusive, tested and costed option.

ScreenVend knew that for a system to be successful, it had to be easy for staff and customers to use. Group research shows pharmacists save 40% of their time by using the ScreenVend model. We’ve recorded an 85% satisfaction level among four key demographics in our market and that’s really encouraging.

Digital technology in retail stores is here to stay. The ScreenVend software that runs the screens and robot interface is scheduled to launch in Switzerland, France, Germany and Spain this year and has plans to roll out in the UK, US, Dubai and Asia in 2021.

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