How social and data have helped National Pharmacies lift its customer game

Century-old South Australian-born company shares how it's tapped heat maps, social media and more to navigate the COVID-19 crisis

A few years ago, century-old South Australian-born company, National Pharmacies, decided to update its mission.

While it had been caring for the community through more than 80 store outlets across South Australia, Victoria and NSW since 1911, the company expanded its vision to include assisting its ageing members to enjoy staying in their homes independently for as long as possible.

While the decision was taken as a way of stepping National Pharmacies’ commit to its members (it operates as a mutual business), it has also proved vital in assisting the company to manage through the COVID-19 crisis.

National Pharmacies executive general manager, Ryan Klose, has driven a technology transformation agenda that revamped the company’s back-end stocking and fulfillment systems and given it stronger capabilities in data sensing and analytics. With a remit that also covers marketing, Klose has been able to track the impact of that transformation through customer behaviour and sentiment. And that capability has proven invaluable this year.

“At the beginning of COVID, the biggest disruption was the speed that product was moving, as customers were buying a lot more than they normally would,” Klose tells CMO. “Our stores weren’t used to experiencing that type of movement, so we leveraged data heat maps to help assist decision-making and optimising ‘right product, right place, right time’. This gave our stores confidence that shelves would continue to be stocked during this panic buying period.”

Those heat maps showed a pattern of accelerated purchasing behaviour that could be seen moving through National Pharmacies’ outlets in Adelaide, starting in the west of the city, move through the centre, then spreading south and east before heading north.

“Every week, we would see more stores being impacted, and that correlated with news events where country towns were saying they had all of these city people coming to clean the shelves out,” Klose says.

Having that real-time information enabled National Pharmacies to begin to proportion its stock fulfillment at different rates, to ensure stock wasn’t sent to stores where it would be immediately cleared from the shelves. That also means stores could reserve stock for vulnerable customers, which staff members communicated through social media and directly to customers.

“Our members started to give positive responses, and say ‘they had stock for me’, and that older people were being encouraged to come in,” Klose says.

The company also tapped into its social media monitoring capabilities to build out its understanding of customer behaviour and begin predicting what changes in customer behaviour it might see next.

“If we see people talking about something, we have the ability to tune certain categories of our product portfolio, and we do that centrally today,” Klose says. “In COVID, we leveraged the same mechanic and tuned it constantly.

“That investment, and the way we were there for people and built confidence, meant the old game of price went out the door a little bit. It came down now to confidence, respect and trust.”  

Read more: How to manage social media during Covid-19

Customer value

It was these notions that have proven critical in helping National Pharmacies execute on its vision of assisting customers in their homes, which has been brought to life through home delivery.

“When we said we were able to facilitate their scripts to the front door, we had many of our older members come online,” Klose says. “Many of the older members were so thankful that we did that, and they also made comments on social media saying they felt safer when National Pharmacies delivered the goods, having that familiarity already with our store teams.

“Our employees became ambassadors, because they cared about the elderly who couldn’t come into the store.”

This initiative was assisted by an earlier decision that saw National Pharmacies’ back-end and loyalty systems made accessible to all staff using tablet devices. This meant when staff were delivering prescriptions to customers at their homes, they were also able to provide a more personalised service with key information at their fingertips.

“In healthcare, it is important to know a little bit about the patient if they have a question,” Klose says. “Having the tablet allows authorised staff to get in and start having a look at their history and what the pharmacist has written. That was good in the store to have that on the floor, but that immediately gave us a benefit because our technology is not tied down.”

That has, in turn, paid dividends for the business, with Klose saying revenue has started to trend up across the business, out-performing last year. More importantly for staff, having access to reliable data has given them much greater confidence in interactions with customers and their ability to make decisions.

“We have an employee workforce that has care as part of its DNA, so we need to give our employees confidence as to how we are going to navigate these decisions, even though these aren’t normal times,” Klose adds.

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