The retail healthcare industry has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Retail staff in healthcare businesses such as pharmacies took on the same responsibilities as frontline workers, as a pharmacy is often the first place a person will go for treatment when they are suffering from flu-like symptoms. At Blooms The Chemist, our stores experienced an enormous increase of over one million customers in March 2020.

As a community pharmacy group on the frontline during the pandemic, we encountered diverse and – what felt like never-ending – challenges in our stores. From medicine shortages, to enforcing social distancing and pivoting quickly to new models of operations, below are our key takeaways in managing a health crisis in retail for now and in the future.

Maintaining team and customer safety

The utmost priority, and the biggest challenge we faced in our retail stores, was providing a safe, trusted environment for our staff and customers. Pharmacists are one of the most accessible healthcare professionals in their community, which made retail floors often the primary contact for customers experiencing symptoms. There were major concerns that team members could contract COVID-19 while at work.

This was escalated by the difficulties of practising social distancing in a Pharmacy. Pharmacies typically have a small footprint – so there’s not a lot of space. This was particularly difficult when customers wanted to stay in the pharmacy and wait for their prescription.

Our Blooms The Chemist Support Office team had to be agile and fast in introducing safety equipment to protect staff and customers, including sneeze guards and accessible hand sanitiser. Face masks and gloves were also used for close contact activities, such as administering health services like the flu vaccine.

Split rostering – dividing the team into two rosters – was also introduced across our entire network of 100 pharmacies. This was to protect the teams and the business in the case that any staff member tested positive for the virus. To date, no team member of Blooms The Chemist have returned a positive COVID-19 test and we are fortunate that no pharmacy had to close during the pandemic.

Embracing eHealth to manage demand

For our industry, the most important thing is to maintain a consistent supply of medication to the community. Stores were required to manage a huge surge in demand, driven by panic buying and pantry stocking of regular medications, pain and fever medications, hand sanitisers, thermometers and masks. Unprecedented demand for cough and cold medications also strained the supply chain and caused much stress for our teams and customers.

One of the great things to come to out of COVID-19 was the digital transformation and speed of eHealth. Our traditionally ‘hands on’ industry was thrown into a new way of doing commerce, and we had to move fast with regulatory changes by the various governments and regulatory bodies. Pharmacists embraced this change and worked closely with their GPs to dispense scripts via email and get medicines straight to the customer’s door to minimise contact and make it safer for the community and staff on the frontline.

This rapidly advancing digital evolution within a space of weeks enabled pharmacies to prioritise their supply chains and more easily deliver medicines direct to the doorsteps of those most vulnerable.

Communication is key

Clear and frequent communication has proven to be vital. Two-way, consistent contact and feedback between the Blooms The Chemist Support Office, Pharmacists and Retail Managers helped to reduce customer panic about not accessing the products and services needed to maintain their health.

Dealing with frustrated customers and panic buying saw concerns for our staff’s physical and mental health, which was addressed by daily and weekly virtual meetings to stay on top of our team’s wellbeing and morale.

Communication has proven to be the top management tool to get our team through the last few months and we have found that sending one daily source of updates to each store from the support office was the best way to manage the ever-changing information of COVID-19.

Moving through the pandemic and beyond

The challenges of the pandemic have not gone away, and our industry cannot afford to be complacent. Businesses need to adapt quickly to ensure their operating model could survive in the ‘new normal’.

Retail thrives when a people-first mentality is maintained. The rise of eHealth, home deliveries and fast, direct and transparent communication with stores has been absolutely vital in ensuring a customer-centric retail experience of exceptional quality is maintained.

Our teams are at the frontline of the pandemic – they have had to adapt, adjust and pivot. The role of the pharmacy as a community-first business has never been more important.

Emmanuel Vavoulas is Head of Retail at Blooms The Chemist