Terry White’s journey to becoming “Australia’s favourite chemist”

oe: I think we’re all now trying to learn to operate in this new Covid-normal. Across our network of 500 pharmacies, we’re still trading at more than 10 per cent up on last year, which was up on the year before that. It is a great result for the pharmacies. 

A big part of that is there are a lot of people now shopping in pharmacy who would not have considered shopping there pre-Covid. That’s happening at a time when attracting frontline health workers or even attracting frontline retail workers has never been more challenging. We’re trading well but we’re operating in a difficult environment for attracting talent into retail or pharmacy. We just need to find smarter and better ways to operate, so from a support office point of view, we’re investing a lot in trying to find as many efficiencies as possible within our pharmacies. 

Over the last couple of years, the scope of practice for pharmacists has probably advanced 10 years. Two years ago, we were probably providing 400,000-500,000 vaccinations a year. This year, we’ll do over 1.5 million vaccinations within the network. Pharmacy is evolving quickly, we’re at the frontline of that. We’re strapping ourselves in and trying to make sure we’re evolving and staying ahead of that at the same time. 

I still really feel for the frontline teams because they’re exhausted. No one’s had a break in two years. I think it’d be different if volumes were stable and the industry wasn’t going through this big evolution, but we’re trying to nurse the network through these big changes and keep everyone buoyant, too, despite the fact there’s a huge amount of pressure and everyone is really tired.

IR: What are some of the most interesting changes in customer behaviour that you’ve noticed? There was still a lot of fear in the community, even just a few months ago, when Omicron hit.

NM: I think that fear part is 100 per cent right. Customers couldn’t understand why there was no stock on the shelves, they couldn’t understand what might happen if they got Covid, none of us really knew. The role we needed to play was to be a genuine, trusted source of information through our pharmacy networks, our website, on TV. We had to make sure we had that consistent, accurate communication. That was key. 

IR: What are some of the retail trends that you’ve got your eye on right now?

NM: There are some new trends off the back of Covid. I do think it fast tracked some other trends that were already under way. With a lot of the conversations we’d had over the last few years around the environment and our carbon footprint, ‘buy local’ was one trend that was already there, but through Covid, it has really exaggerated. That has really lined up well with us and we have the opportunity to deliver on that, given our footprint of 500 pharmacies across the country. 

Personalisation is one trend that’s been coming for retail and health. It also ties in well with our strategy, because we do have a very large, highly trained network, so we can provide that personalisation at a local level. But we’ve also got the scale and capital where we can invest in our digital journeys to make sure that we’re providing that personalisation there, as well.

We were probably a little bit behind, pre-Covid, on our digital journey and I think Covid forced us to speed that right up. We did stand up an e-commerce platform very quickly at the start of Covid to get us through, and our journey with our digital platform, My TWC, has continued. 

I think people’s continued interest in looking after their health has probably been exaggerated again through Covid. That’s been building for a while. Society as a whole is more focused on their health now than they were previously.

IR: Can you tell me about the work that you guys do within the community, in terms of maintaining those connections?

NM: Pharmacists are really valued members of their communities and they touch so many different lives. When I do hear those stories in-store or I have conversations with those customers, it certainly is a high point for me. Whenever I’m in pharmacies, I try to talk to as many customers as I can and you’re always getting those stories: ‘I’ve shopped here since my kids were little, and Terry White helped me through here and now I’m a grandparent.’ 

Pharmacists naturally establish those connections very well. They really are on the frontline. Every customer who comes into our pharmacies has an interaction with one of our pharmacy assistants and they’re caring, empathetic, kind, genuine people who want to help customers. You see that in pharmacy more than any other environment that I’ve been involved in. One of the things we talk about a lot in the support centre, from an operational point of view, is that we look after their business, so that our network can look after their customers. We want to create an environment that is seamless and stress free so that the pharmacists have as much time as possible to engage with their community. 

IR: I know that even before Covid, customer abuse was a big problem for the retail industry. And it has just skyrocketed since Covid. Where is Terry White on that journey when it comes to supporting your teams?

NM: I don’t want to say there’s no abuse in pharmacy at all, it can be quite an emotional place, particularly when there are people who are unwell or have some concerns and some challenges they need to handle. But on the whole, customers are coming in because they know someone is there who can help them feel better. I think we’re quite lucky to have our customers enter our stores with that mentality.

But of course, through Covid, customer abuse was definitely exaggerated when people didn’t know what was going on. There was a vacuum of information, but there was also so much information that it was hard to know what to believe. Should you be coming in and buying 10 boxes of Panadol [because it was going to be] unavailable for the next year, or should you just keep buying one at a time? So we had to introduce limits on purchases and that did get quite challenging, so we tried to make sure that we had as much relevant, factual, up-to-date information as possible. We tried to circumvent all those ‘hot button’ issues to make sure there was [enough] stock[to ensure that] even though there was a lot of focus on Covid, people’s everyday health issues could be treated at the same time. 

But we did put a lot of focus into our pharmacy teams to make sure they could get support. Through the first six months or so of Covid, we held about 60 webinars with our network as well as a lot of other training training sessions. That was focusing on regulatory changes, providing updates on stock. For our pharmacies or in shopping centres, it was providing advice on how to manage their lease and work with their landlord, for pharmacies that were unfortunately reducing staff hours, it was about how to manage from an HR point of view. Really importantly, we focused on having a number of speakers working with our team on building resilience. We’re two years into this and there’s a long way to go. It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. Having a team that is resilient and able to rebound from those tough days was really important. Bottom line, we really focused on education and personal development for our teams to make sure they could continue being the centre of their communities.

IR: What are the challenges and where are the opportunities in pharmacy at the moment?

NM: It’s actually a really competitive space. We’ve got some fantastic competitors on a national level, you know who they are.

I really like seeing a lot of the innovation in pharmacies at the local independent level. There are some great ones out there that I get a lot of inspiration from. And then we’ve always got disruptors coming into the industry, particularly through Covid. With the digital shift that’s happening in pharmacy, that’s bringing in other competitors, which is exciting, because it spurs us all on to do better. 

From a Terry White Chemmart point of view, we’re in a really good position to tackle those competitors and make sure we’re evolving our model and supporting our networks.

In terms of challenges, I do think the last two years have had a real toll on frontline health retail workers and we need to make sure that we are creating an environment where people are happy to work. You won’t find a more rewarding career in retail than in pharmacy. 

I know from speaking to my colleagues in grocery and other retail sectors they’re having a lot of the same challenges we are attracting people back into working in bricks-and-mortar retail, but it really is a great career to get into.

IR: So many people don’t think about retail as a long-term career, but they kind of fall into it.

NM: I finished uni expecting to be an accountant and next thing you know, I’m working with a German grocery retailer that I’d never heard of. I worked for Aldi back in 2003 when no one in Australia knew who they were, including me! I think there are a lot of stories out there like that. But you’re right, it is a really interesting space, and it’s only getting more interesting.

IR: What are your plans for Terry White for the rest of the year?

NM: We really do need to continue to grow our pharmacy network. Five hundred pharmacies might sound like a lot, but we are seeing a lot of consolidation in pharmacy. To fulfil our goal of having 90 per cent of Australians within 10 minutes of a Terry White Chemmart, we probably need to get the group closer to 700 pharmacies. It’s quite exciting, we’ve got a clear line of sight through to about 600 and we have ambitions to push on beyond that over the next couple of years. 

We’re also continuing to evolve our model to support our network through what this new Covid world looks like. We’re not through this yet and even when we are, the world will look very different than what it does now. We’ve also got to keep our foot down on those trends I mentioned before to make sure that we’re delivering against those. 

We’ve got big digital ambitions, as we are seeing the world moving that way, but we’re moving deliberately quite slowly in that space to make sure that we’re not doing it at the expense of our local pharmacy and local network. We don’t want to take people out of their local pharmacies. We see pharmacy as the central sort of healthcare pillar in a community. My TWC was created just to enhance bricks-and-mortar. There’ll be people out there who want to order their script online and get it delivered by Uber and we’ll facilitate that if that’s what people want. But what we really are doing is making it easier for people who want to shop or book an appointment online, but not taking them out of the local pharmacy. 

As corny as it sounds, for the last couple of years, we’ve spoken about being Australia’s favourite pharmacy. We even have some people in the business who answer their phone with ‘Thanks for calling, I’m Adam from Australia’s favourite pharmacy, Terry White Chemmart.’ It means different things to different people. For customers, it means they choose it as their favourite pharmacy to shop in. For pharmacists, they choose it as their favourite pharmacy to work in. For team members, it’s also their favourite pharmacy to work in and for franchise partners, it’s their favourite pharmacy network to be a part of. 

But as we’ve evolved as a brand and as we really have taken a leadership position in the levels of care we’re providing in the community and the scale that we’re getting now, we have elevated that ambition to creating a better future for Australian pharmacy. 

That’s something that is really important for me. When I do leave this brand and this industry, I hope we’ve made the industry better as a whole. As a large player in a market like this, we’ve got an obligation to make sure that what we’re doing as a group is leading to better health outcomes for our customers, and a more sustainable business model. 

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