Gary Paragpuri says the new challenge for contractors will be to find novel ways of drawing in customers across different age groups, especially those that are more willing to move online…

Six months on from the two confirmed cases in York that marked the arrival of Covid-19 to the UK at the end of January, little has changed in terms of the threat presented by the virus.

There are promising signs of breakthroughs in treatments, with remdesivir appearing to shorten recovery time and evidence suggesting that dexamethasone cuts the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators.

In parallel, huge efforts are being poured into the task of finding a vaccine and, at the time of writing, seven candidate drugs have accelerated their way through to phase 3 clinical trials.

As yet, however, no silver bullet has been found. And in discussing the promise of finding a vaccine with the BBC, Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, provided a reminder that first-generation vaccines would not solve everything, and that much would still rely on behavioural change.

Unintended consequences

Sir Jeremy’s comments largely relate to the enforced type of behavioural change, such as the wearing of masks in certain public spaces, the application of social distancing rules, and the need to self-isolate and get tested if there is concern that symptoms are present.

More difficult to predict are the unenforced behavioural changes among the UK population – the shifts in attitude, perception and opinion that trigger new thoughts, feelings and actions. For example, data released by Rightmove shows that inquiries about buying a home in a village jumped by 126 per cent in June and July across the UK compared with the same period in 2019.

Such trends hint at the fact that remote working is set to be a long-term trend for large proportions of the UK workforce beyond this year’s short-term blip. Indeed, research from US bank Morgan Stanley has shown that employees in the UK have been particularly reticent to return to the office, with just 34 per cent of white-collar employees having gone back to work compared with 83 per cent of office staff in France and 76 per cent in Italy.

Understandably, consumers aren’t rushing back to our high streets either. Footfall data from Springboard shows that while the general trend is on the up, overall numbers in July were almost 40 per cent below the same level a year ago.

Avoiding unnecessary contact

Put simply, people are content to stay at home wherever possible to avoid being in close contact with others and minimise their risk of infection. In this context, e-commerce has become an incredibly attractive proposition to the extent that eMarketer predicts the pandemic will cause overall spending online to rise 8.8 per cent above its pre-pandemic forecast level – or an additional £8.23bn of revenues.

Consumer willingness to move online is also seen in parts of the UK pharmacy sector with internet pharmacies such as Pharmacy2U and Echo, the online service from Lloydspharmacy, showing growth in EPS nominations and e-commerce, along with the digital arms of Well and Boots.

According to Statista, making a purchase from an online pharmacy is most common among individuals aged 35 to 44 – the core demographic of busy working parents. It is lowest among those aged 65 or older – an important and growing demographic for all pharmacies.

Pharmacy owners, therefore, have a series of challenges to address across the breadth of their customer base, all of whom appear to be seeking ways of minimising contact with others as far as practically possible.

For younger and middle-aged patients comfortable with online purchasing, there is the need to introduce greater levels of convenience. For older patients, many of whom will be on repeats, there is the need to provide a physical experience that continues to support social distancing.

Flexible options

At Hub and Spoke Innovations, our customers tell us they are seeing these behavioural shifts play out in subtle ways thanks to the 24/7 access provided by the Pharmaself24. There has been a rise in collections in the early hours of the morning as well as a rise in collections in the evening and later at night, whether by commuters who are now back in the office or by older patients who don’t just want to avoid queuing in-store but want to limit opportunities to come into contact with others entirely.

Perhaps when a vaccine arrives, these habits will change again, but given that they are unenforced choices, it’s also possible evidence of a more fundamental shift in behaviour.

Community pharmacy has shown a remarkable ability to adapt time and again as changes – whether driven by markets, governments or consumers – have presented new challenges. It now feels like we’re at that point again, so how will your pharmacy adapt?

Gary Paragpuri is the CEO of Hub and Spoke Innovations.

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