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Everyone loves a bargain, apparently. Cut-price this, sizzling-sale that, rock-bottom the other.
We all want to feel we are getting more for our dollar. But when it comes to pharmaceuticals, do we like the idea of getting our medicines more cheaply?
Pills and tablets, lozenges, lotions, emollients and unguents keep a large percentage of the country going. For many in our ageing population, a visit to local pharmacy is a monthly, even weekly, event.
Suddenly, and seemingly rather stealthily in the past month or so, two large chemist warehouse chains offering lower-priced products have set up shop in New Zealand. For those who have not noticed, we now have the 100% Kiwi-owned Bargain Chemist, which opens a store in Dunedin next week, while the Australian-owned Chemist Warehouse says it is looking for two sites in the city.
Bargain Chemist has already come under fire from neighbourhood pharmacists and the Pharmacy Guild of New Zealand for its business model, which removes the Government’s $5 charge on subsidised medications.
The guild says that reflects its modus operandi, to focus on retail bulk sales of non-dispensary products to offset losses from waiving the prescription charges. The implication in the guild’s argument is that these new mega-pharmacies are more interested in money-making than in serving those in their communities.
Guild chief executive Andrew Gaudin wants the Ministry of Health to become involved, saying the growth of discount chains is distorting the sector, effectively seducing customers with shelves stacked with goods such as vitamins, baby food, first-aid products, perfumes and other beauty offerings.
He says the new chains are putting pressure on community pharmacies, some of which are already struggling and reducing services, hours and staff, or even closing their doors for good.
Up at Dunedin’s Roslyn Village Pharmacy, director Andrew Hou is confident in the abilities of pharmacists to continue providing a duty of care to their customers.
"When you buy from a local business, an actual person does a little happy dance" reads a sign in his chemist shop, which after the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown last year decided not to use business growth as a measure of its success.
‘‘It’s all about making it the healthiest community," Mr Hou said. "It’s not about maximising sales.’’
Those are certainly words which will go down well with customers and the broader community. But making money is still crucial to the success of their business.
While it may be balm to the ears to hear such a customer-driven ethos, some neighbourhood pharmacies are no longer purely that at all, having banded together into larger groupings to be more efficient.
Antidote is one of those, with nine stores across Otago. Co-owner Chin Loh told the ODT it was likely to cut some of those and consolidate its better-performing shops in an attempt to stave off the threat from the large pharmacy warehouses.
This approach may seem more clinical than that of the Roslyn Village Pharmacy, with Mr Loh saying "the name of the game is now preserving cashflow", but the aim is the same — "to keep serving the community from the strongest stores".
Unfortunately, for our traditional pharmacies, the waters have become significantly muddied in the past decade or so. To help stay afloat, many have expanded into offering what can only be described as trinkets, including aromatic candles, face packs, cheap jewellery, greeting cards and so on. Some have also taken on the NZ Post franchise and all that entails.
The arrival of the Bargain Chemist and the Chemist Warehouse is not really all that surprising. After all, people are able to buy many health products online now from overseas mail-order operations, and Countdown supermarkets have their own pharmacies.
It is the same progression, welcome or unwelcome depending on your view, that made life difficult for many neighbourhood hardware stores once Mitre 10 and Bunnings came to town.
The difference this time is it potentially has health implications. And some might argue there is a risk that pseudo-pharmaceutical products on the shelves might confuse customers looking for the real thing.