How retailers are getting back to business

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How retailers are getting back to business

By David Salazar - 06/22/2020

What's next?

That’s probably the biggest challenge that food and drug retailers face as the country emerges from lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will there be a second wave of infections that forces the reimposition of stay-at-home orders? If so, when might that occur and how widespread might it be? Will there be a vaccine or an effective treatment this year, or maybe next year?

Retailers need to consider not only how their customers and employees might react to each of these scenarios, but they also need to form concrete plans for the immediate future as consumers begin venturing out of their homes more frequently.

That leads to more questions and more questions after that. For example, will consumers’ elevated online shopping levels persist as lockdowns ease? And as they do begin to venture into stores more often, will they change their shopping preferences based on in-store safety measures, or perhaps based on economic pressures?

“There remains a central issue around trust and safety, both for customers coming back into the stores and for the associates serving them,” said Neil Stern, senior partner at consulting firm McMillan Doolittle. “This is compounded by uneven and inconsistent messaging on a local and national level on what safety means.”

Retailers will likely, at a minimum, need to demonstrate to their customers that they have implemented the basic precautions that have come to be expected, such as masks for all employees and rules inside the store to maintain social distancing. These could include one-way aisles, for example, and occupancy limits, both of which were widely deployed during the peak of the crisis this spring.

“If there are gaps [in your safety precautions], you are going to devalue your brand,” said John Orr, senior vice president of retail at Ceridian, a human resources technology provider, in a recent webinar presented by consulting firm IHL Group.

He said consumers will expect to see visual evidence that safety protocols are in place and are being carried out. “Before, cleaning and maintenance was a ‘no-no’ during peak business hours. You did it during off hours because you didn’t want people to see it,” Orr said. “Now, consumers are going to have to see more tangibles while they are there. For customers, visibility provides them with assurance, and that starts at the entrance and continues to the exit.”

Stern agreed that high visibility around safety precautions will be important going forward. “The best approach is to have very clear and visible standards, both on the website and social media and within the stores,” he said. “What are the rules and policies around masks, social distancing, aisle flows, sanitation standards, etc.?” 

Such visible barriers as masks for staff and plastic dividers at checkouts and other service areas will be important, but retailers will also need to demonstrate more than ever that they are on top of sanitation practices. “The challenge is finding the balance between safety and ‘sales suppression,’ where retailers go overboard on compliance,” Stern said.

Telehealth gains acceptance

Telemedicine is one of the technologies to emerge during the pandemic, and many industry officials said it could have implications for pharmacies as consumers become more comfortable with it, according to some observers.

“We moved forward five years in two months on this,” said Jim Whitman, senior vice president of member programs and service at NACDS, in a recent webinar presented by Coresight Research. “It is hugely important in that it is another way of getting directly to customers. What better way than having a [patient] be able to talk to a professional about their illness or their therapy or their medication?”

Steve Perlowski, vice president of industry affairs at NACDS, said that it will be important for retailers to provide the platform that customers use for their telemedicine consultations, so that the retailer remains a vital element of the process and has the opportunity to provide the prescriptions or other products and services that the patient requires.

Perlowski predicted that businesses increasingly will require their employees to use telemedicine because of the efficiencies it brings to health care. “I think the employer community will embrace telehealth in a way they haven’t in the past,” he said.

Key to the acceptance of telehealth, he said, will be gaining consumers’ trust about the use of their information. Telehealth only works if enough information is shared, he said. Meanwhile, retailers using telehealth with their patients will have to navigate regulatory challenges around privacy, which can vary by state.

It also will be important for retailers to make the technology as easy as possible for both patients and medical professionals to use, said Mark Nelson, vice president of business development at Independent Rx Consulting. “I think you’re seeing a change in the mindset of people, who say, ‘Hey, this isn’t as scary or as hard as I thought,’” Nelson said. 

 — Mark Hamstra

At Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS Health, the retailer has several shopper safety measures in place, including hourly protocols for cleaning hard surfaces and more frequent cleaning of commonly handled items. All employees also have been provided with protective masks, gloves and hand sanitizer for personal use.

The company also has placed disinfecting wipe stations at the front of the store for customers and implemented store signage encouraging social distancing and reminding shoppers that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend anyone with symptoms or diagnosis of COVID-19 remain in quarantine. Floor markers also have been placed and protective panels have been installed at checkout and the pharmacy counter. 

CVS also is encouraging all customers to wear a mask or a cloth face covering, and has store signage reminding them if their state or city requires one. If customers choose not to wear a mask, the retailer said its priority is to help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible.  Employees are encouraged to provide customers with information about other options for their future needs, including home delivery for prescriptions and drive-thru window service.

The retailer has waived charges for home delivery of prescription medications through the end of June and is encouraging drive-thru use where available, so customers can get what they need without stepping foot in the store.

“Customers and patients who walk into a CVS Pharmacy want to feel confident and safe, and we are continually working to make our commitment to their safety highly visible throughout their visit and in our communications to them,” said Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice president of store operations, told Drug Store News

Meanwhile, retail employees in both stores and distribution centers will be seeking assurances that their workplaces will remain safe for themselves and their families. They may require access to expanded sick leave and job protections should they need to stay home. That may require a rethinking of worker benefits for both the short and the long-term.

“I think every CEO will tell you there’s a lot more emphasis on the employees’ well-being because if they are well, then our customers will be well,” said Jim Whitman, senior vice president of member programs and service at NACDS, in a recent webinar presented by Coresight Research. “Stores are integral parts of their communities, and employees are integral parts of their communities. It just makes good business sense.”

Retailers also will have to train workers around the new safety protocols, and keep workers up to date on the ever-changing guidelines for best practices when it comes to protecting their health and the health of their customers.

In addition, the roles of many workers may evolve based on the degree to which consumers continue to adopt e-commerce, delivery and in-store pickup. 

Besides changes at the store and warehouse level, food and drug retailers also will need to consider whether ongoing changes in their operations might require restructuring at the corporate level.

“The best approach is to have very clear and visible standards, both on the website and social media and within the stores. What are the rules and policies around masks, social distancing, aisle flows, sanitation standards, etc.?” 
Neil Stern, senior partner, McMillan Doolittle

Operational Changes
Delivery and pickup have increasingly become important to consumers during the pandemic as many shoppers, especially those who are older or are vulnerable because of existing medical conditions, have been seeking to avoid going into stores.

“We are closely watching how this pandemic is changing how consumers interact with us,” CVS’ Rumbarger said. “Many are trying to fulfill their needs without leaving home and, as a result, have tried our prescription delivery service for the first time. When they choose to leave home and go to the store, many are using the drive-thru or limiting their risk through one-stop shopping.”

The retailer said it expects some consumer behaviors to stick or evolve after the pandemic is over. “We will continue to be nimble and flexible and make data-based decisions,” the spokesperson said. For example, the retailer is prioritizing work that makes it even easier for customers and patients to get what they need for their families, safely obtain medications, and access MinuteClinic services either in its stores or via a telehealth visit.

“We will continue to adapt our services and digital tools based on customer usage patterns and feedback.”

Last year, CVS Pharmacy launched CarePass, a paid membership program designed to optimize its omnichannel offerings. CarePass members receive free prescription delivery, have access to a 24/7 Pharmacist Helpline and get 20% off CVS Health brands every day. In addition, members receive a $10 promo reward each month.

“As we’re seeing an increase in demand for the delivery of prescriptions and health and beauty products, CVS is committed to giving our consumers more choices in how quickly they can access the essentials they need when it is not convenient for them to visit one of our stores,” Rumbarger said.

Front-of-store items are available for same-day home delivery through CVS Pharmacy’s relationships with Instacart and Shipt.

The retailer also is providing free one- to two-day delivery of prescriptions and select essential products through June 30. Same-day prescription delivery also is available for a fee. CVS also is testing both drone and driverless prescription delivery in a few select markets.

As consumers embrace drive-thru, pickup and delivery for prescriptions, it creates an opportunity for retailers that are providing this service to encourage additional purchases of other products, said Owen BonDurant, president of Independent Rx Consulting. “Do you need to create a notification that says, ‘Your meds are ready and, by the way, here’s four things that you have typically bought in the past. Would you like to add that to the delivery order?’ Those kinds of things need to be thought through.”

BonDurant suggested that pharmacy operators take the time to study the functionality of their mobile apps and other technologies, and learn how to use them to full advantage for their current needs.

Other innovations that could gain traction include medication synchronization, which allows patients to pick up all of their prescriptions at the same time, once a month. This could allow pharmacists to schedule prescription pickups to reduce congestion in the pharmacy area. BonDurant said. “That way you can spread it out, and people will feel safer about shopping,” he said.

Pharmacists also have an opportunity to be a trusted source of information for their customers during these troubled times, Nelson said. “It’s been very difficult to figure out what’s real and what’s not throughout this process,” he said. “The pharmacy is a trusted source, so they have the ability to help educate the population.”

With consumers visiting their local drug stores much more frequently than they go to the doctor in many cases, Nelson said retailers have the ability to provide their customers and the community overall with timely, accurate information. “My advice would be to make sure pharmacists have the right information,” he said. “And that they’re relaying that to their customers so they can make the right choices.”

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