Claire Fergusson

Natural Healthcare offers a wide range of products that provide an alternative to conventional medicines. Consumers are drawn to these products in the belief that they do not cause unwanted side effects or that they simply wish to lead a healthy lifestyle. For some, it’s cultural influences that drive their decision.

Whatever their reasons, Claire Ferguson, the dynamic CEO of Nelsons, has the answers.

“We are a healthcare company and natural is our USP,” she says. “When we talk to our consumers, and it’s a trend that goes across the board, people want natural first, they want to know what ingredients are going into their products.”

Two-thirds of consumers today would choose a natural product first, she claims. In the not too distant past, it used to be a sub-section and it was parked in a corner of a pharmacy. Now with two-thirds of consumers choosing natural first, it’s just part of healthcare.

As such, pharmacists are increasingly identified as the most suitable healthcare professionals to counsel consumers about natural health products, by offering evidence-based information, wherever possible, to ensure safe product selection.

“Consumers are probably ahead, and they are ready,” say Claire. “We do need to help our pharmacy partners to ensure that they are in that place, that they feel just as comfortable to recommend a natural product with a product they might be used to. For example, for teething, it’s not an either/or. It’s important that they are comfortable recommending an analgesic and Teetha, a favourite among parents of teething children for generations.

“Consumers are already there. We’ll continue to put the consumer and the user at the centre of what we are doing, and we need to educate and support our pharmacy partners to ensure that they are comfortable in recommending.”

When asked what her natural healthcare company was doing to educate and support community pharmacists, she said after she joined the business a couple of years ago, she drove up education, a fundamental pillar within the 159- year old natural healthcare business, and hired a highly qualified and highly capable pharmacy veteran to talk directly to pharmacists and work with them.

That led to the development of a number of e-learning modules tailored-made for pharmacists and counter staff in particular – who do a huge amount of the recommendation and interaction with customers.

“The idea was to make it easy for them – both to learn the areas, for example, sleep, stress and energy, which are the key areas we play in.

“Seven out of 10 people don’t have enough sleep. It’s really important that pharmacy staff feel comfortable talking about that whole area and how to broach a conversation with people who come to collect their prescriptions, etc.

“Pharmacies have a strong footfall. It’s about us helping pharmacy staff to engage with those consumers. If someone hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and walks into a pharmacy, how many of these people are the pharmacy counter staff talking to? We need to help pharmacists capture those patients – if you look at the number of google searches on sleep and stress – it’s just mind-blowing and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”

From a brand owner’s perspective, pharmacy education is, of course, very important as people are more likely to ask questions, but equally, they will also trust the opinion of the pharmacy staff. This means pharmacy teams need a thorough understanding so when asked they should be confident about discussing the products and benefits with the patient.

Claire ensures Nelsons’ e-learning module addresses all the needs of the pharmacy team: thorough understanding of the area, knowing when and how to communicate with customers and also gaining enough knowledge of the products to feel confident while making those recommendations.

That does tick most of the boxes, as healthcare is getting increasingly digitised in recent decades. But what about the human touch?

“Yes, we have covered that base too,” chuckled Claire, before adding: “Our sales representatives do that all the time.

“We need to help them pharmacists help their customers. And that’s where we have done a great job by simplifying things so that they still have the information they need, they can help customers make clear, robust and informed decisions, but we also ensure that we are not overwhelming pharmacists with unnecessary information.”

The feedback Claire gets from the pharmacists is “largely very positive” although some have sought help with merchandising because of space constraints within their pharmacies. Nelsons account managers do what they can to help to make the store floors more inviting.

How does Nelsons go about communicating with the patient as the end-consumer?

“We talk to consumers and we educate them, we do a lot on social media too. Consumers want information. E-commerce is growing hugely in natural healthcare which means a positive call-to-action for pharmacists.”

People want information and they can get a lot of it online. However, if a product costs less online, why would they bother to visit the local pharmacy?

“No,” said Claire, emphatically. “Prices aren’t really that different in e-commerce channels for natural products. And our research indicates that largely people don’t buy online because of cost. People buy online because of convenience, or because of information. Personalisation is what people want and an online retailer can’t give them that. We sometimes forget how well pharmacists know their patients.”

Word of mouth is highly prevalent in healthcare, because recommendations, based on first-hand experience, by patients to friends, family and colleagues can be very useful.

“Yes, word of mouth – be it at a school gate or by someone who’s pregnant recommending a product such as Spatone to a friend – is highly valued and it can work wonders,” says Claire.

“We are incredibly lucky to have a huge number of celebrities use our products and talk about them very openly. Lionel Messi uses our Bach flower remedy Mimulus. Fearne Cotton spoke on Instagram about how her mother used Rescue and how she uses Rescue.

“In the past if you asked who used natural, they would probably say the older age group, of course, it crosses all age groups, but actually millennials are huge, absolutely huge! If you look at our social media posts at exam time, the number of people posting about using Rescue is huge. Lots of our Spatone users don’t use it because it is natural, they use the product because of the lack of side-effects. It busts the myth that it’s only a particular age group that uses natural.”

But being ‘natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean they are always safe?

“Sometimes when people hear the word natural, they think that doesn’t mean there is science behind it. Science and clinical research can and should be behind any healthcare products, natural or not, and we should be driving more clinical studies. The fundamental piece is patient safety first and foremost. My degree is medical science, I am firmly rooted in science. At Nelsons, we ensure we have the highest quality standards in place working in line with all of the regulatory bodies in every country we distribute in. But we can do all the clinical studies in the world and ultimately if it’s safe and delivers on all standards it must be about patient choice,” Claire retorts.

“For us, it’s not case of either/or – we see ourselves as part of healthcare. We are not up against other areas of healthcare – it should be and is completely integrated.”

A huge amount of growth in natural healthcare is based on prevention and wellness. Patients who use these approaches often take a greater interest in maintaining their own health. And the government also wants people to buy into the idea of personal responsibility when it comes to health.

“I see a huge role for pharmacists around prevention and wellness. They need to be seen as an integral part of healthcare and not as a separate group. That’s where a lot of our growth is coming from – it’s not just treating people when they are ill, when they got a cold in February or when they got hay fever – it’s about people all year round wanting to feel their best.

“And with the millennials coming through that’s even more prevalent – they demand to feel great and they believe they should feel great all the time. They love natural healthcare products.”

Pharmacists should be at the centre of gaining from that growth, and Claire wholeheartedly agrees.

This article also appears in the September issue of Pharmacy Business.

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