Blurred Roles: Self-Reinvention is Helping Drugstores but Challenges the Pharma Industry

As consumers increasingly see drugstores as healthcare providers and pharma companies as manufacturers, both are being held to a different standard. And both are suffering in the eyes of consumers.

Recently, we released industry data that revealed some vital generational differences in how consumers perceive and experience pharma manufacturers and retailers. The results illustrate what both industries can learn from high-performing healthcare providers, such as how to demonstrate empathy and speak to shared values.

Consumers generally hold pharmaceutical companies in low esteem, regarding them as greedy and hypocritical. In their attempt to speak directly to patients via direct-to-consumer advertising, pharma companies are likely bringing this upon themselves. By promoting medications in the same way that other industries promote shampoos, cars, or cruise lines, they may have inadvertently transformed their image from science enterprises or healthcare providers to simple consumer goods manufacturers.

Our data this year clearly demonstrate that drugstores, in their quest to reinvent themselves as healthcare providers, are facing a similar challenge. This became startlingly apparent when we looked at generational differences.

Perception of Drugstores Changes for Younger Generation

Walgreens ranked among the top five brands cited by Gen Z respondents, just below Google and Nike. And Gen Z and Millennial respondents gave all three major drugstore chains higher scores on average than did respondents of other ages.

However, as we looked back at our own research on Millennials and healthcare, the reason became apparent. For many of that generation, drugstores such as Walgreens and CVS have become the first stops for primary care. Young people rely on these retailers for walk-in visits, flu shots, and professional advice about self-care.

Thus the retailers that younger generations praise—generally Walgreens and CVS—have won their hearts because they are acting as healthcare professionals, demonstrating good values and corporate social responsibility, or helping those lacking prescription drug coverage find non-Rx substitutes. In contrast, older respondents—whether praising or damning these retailers—judged them by more traditional retail measures such as customer service, cleanliness, range of products, and, of course, prices.

But regardless of whether they were obtaining healthcare services from drugstores, even Boomers and Silent Generation respondents were keenly aware of whether these retailers were acting as good guardians of the public health. People of all ages praised CVS for refusing to sell tobacco products and the chorus condemning Walgreens and Rite Aid for not following suit was equally multigenerational.

How to Act Moving Forward

Self-reinvention offers huge opportunity, but creates equally large challenges along the way. As health product merchandisers become healthcare providers and as pharma manufacturers behave like consumer goods marketers, both industries face hurdles. Does this mean they should back off and revert to the last century’s version of their industries?

No. But it does mean that they can and should learn from some of the brands that scored highest in our research, such as providers of direct care like St. Jude’s Hospital and the Mayo Clinic. These institutions are not only acting in accord with their espoused values, but continually exploring how they can do more to help the caregivers as well as the patients and ensure that patients leave their buildings more educated than when they entered.

These are the goals that healthcare product manufacturers and retailers need to strive for, and it starts with engaging patients and caregivers as partners—not mere consumers.

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