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WE panel sheds light on women's unmet needs in retail, healthcare sectors

Suppliers and retailers can work in tandem to address educational barriers to fulfill unmet needs in the female product and health sectors.
(R to L) Panelists Summer Williams Kerley, Leigha Dunbar, Lauren Wittenberg and moderator Sue Smith.
(R to L) Panelists Summer Williams Kerley, Leigha Dunbar, Lauren Wittenberg and moderator Sue Smith.

At NACDS TSE 2023, attendees gathered to hear from a powerhouse of women panelists for an open discussion about how suppliers and retailers can work in tandem to address unmet needs in the female product sector. Sue Smith, leader of beauty/personal care business at The Emerson Group moderated the “Closing the Gap in Health and Wellness for Women'' panel, presented by WE. Leigha Dunbar, senior DMM/senior director at Walgreens; Summer Williams Kerley, vice president clinical and market access solutions, Rite Aid Corporation; and Lauren Wittenberg, director, global e-commerce and omnichannel at i-Health Inc, a Division of DSM, lent their expertise to share vulnerable advice to a packed audience.

[Read more: Beyond pregnancy care]

Here are some of the takeaways from the event: 

Sue Smith: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing female customers managing their self-care?

Summer Williams Kerley: When I started as a pharmacist 23 years ago, there was a lack of information around self-careor access to it. Fast forward 25 years later, there's almost too much information. We're on information overload Now, I say it's a challenge. It's not a bad thing though, right? But where we're at is making sure that our female shoppers have the right information. And the problem with that is, if you look at the data, it says that about 4% of research and development is on women's health. Only 4%. So there's no way that all the information at our fingertips is reliable. So that's really what I'm working on. The programs we create are really focused on making sure our pharmacists, as well as our customers, have the right information to make choices about their self-care.”

[Read more: Challenges to addressing health equity]

Lauren Wittenberg: In terms of research and funding, she [Summer] shared that only 4% is represented in the women's health space. And I think an even more staggering number that we talk about, especially in our spaces, are topics like menstruation, PMS. PMS impacts 90% of women. They feel those symptoms. And that's something that they endure every single month. And it has a fifth of the investment that erectile dysfunction has. ED impacts only 19% of men. So we're talking about 90% versus 19%that's staggering, right? And that impacts a lot of the people in this room. So I think we all can play a role, especially those of us that are attached to legacy pharma companies. What does the research path look like there?

I also think that just the overall awareness and accessibility in women's health is fairly limited. And we know that, in the United States in particular, reproductive health management is an issue all over the country. We don't have parental leave policies, we don't have childcare policies, and it's very, very unique in this country versus anywhere else. So I think those are some of the challenges along with some of this just being really taboo still. And I think we're lucky to work in this industry where a lot of us talk about vaginal health or prostate health, right? We can come out and say it, and that's very taboo in so many parts of the country."

Leigha Dunbar: “Let's change the word from ‘challenge’ to ‘obstacles.’ And when you think of things from a store standpoint, such as walking into any of the stores, it's a lot of product, right? We all know that. And when you're walking down the aisles, it can be very intimidating because you have all these different ingredients. So you think, ‘Well, what am I looking at? What does this mean?’ And then if you don't have someone to help you to really understand what this [product]  does for you, you walk out the store. And you think,‘I don't want to ask anyone.’ And then in terms of women's product in general, it could be a little private. You don't feel comfortable, you may not want to talk about it.

So I think one of the challenges is that there is the lack of that educational piece and that silent salesperson that you really need at shelf to help the customer through their decision journey and when they're going to purchase. So it kind of goes back to the information that's being shared. We have to make sure there's consistent and efficacious information that's out there that really supports the needs of the consumer, because there's a lot of unmet needs out there. There's a lot of product out there that may not help solve. And so we have to make sure that the information that's at shelf that we're giving them, from an education standpoint, is accurate and true. It really does service them.”

SS: In what ways do you hope that vendors can partner with organizations to lean into female empowerment to manage their health needs?

LD: “About 80% to 90% of the people that are shopping in the store are women. She's making those decisions and buying that product for her family as it relates to their healthcare. About two thirds of those women don't know what they need to do to solve for themselves.

So from a supplier standpoint, it's important that we continue to talk about education, and the educational things that consumers need to help them through the journey. We have to make it something that's digestible. It can't be something that's too over-the-top pharmaceutical, but something that they can digest very quickly and understand, ‘Aha, this is for me!’ From a standpoint of what's really needed is really about the right educationthe right education that really supports her.”

SK:I think it's important to continue to have the very, cross-functional teams that focus on women's health conditions. Women have a longer life expectancy than men but we oftentimes have worse health outcomes. So, for example, a female who has a heart attack is 20% more likely to develop congestive heart failure or die within five years of that first heart attack.

There’s also inequityBlack females are 16% less likely to be tested for hereditary breast cancer than their white counterparts. As an industry, we are not working cross-functionally to ensure that there's an education needed on the products and serviceswhether it be on testing kits, whether it be service offerings that pharmacists can do to help screen and help with preventative care. I have a really good working  relationship with the marketing and merchandising team to really focus on what we need in our stores to help with preventative care for our customers.”

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