Open up for the antidote

The Government’s plans to open up the pharmaceutical retail and on-line market could be a shot in the arm for designers.

A Government proposal to lift restrictions on the opening of pharmacies looks set to create a raft of opportunities for interactive, retail and graphic designers. Within a year, a string of on-line pharmacies are expected to launch, alongside retail pharmacies in venues as varied as leisure centres, supermarkets and convenience stores.

The plans, unveiled last week by Health Minister Rosie Winterton, will make it easier to open pharmacies across the UK, provided that they meet one of four criteria. They must be wholly Internet- or mail order-based; commit to opening more than 100 hours a week; be located in out-of-town retail parks covering an area of at least 15 000m2; or be part of a one-stop, multi-service primary care centre.

‘This could help existing pharmacies and numerous other sectors, including supermarkets, that are not currently favoured by the status quo,’ maintains a Department of Health spokesman.

At present, anyone who wants to open a pharmacy has to seek approval from the local primary care trust, which grants licenses on the basis of ‘desirability and necessity’. This process is designed to ensure a good spread of pharmacies and the protection of existing outlets, but also means that many applications are automatically rejected.

Major players in the pharmaceutical industry are poised to take advantage of the changes, which could come as soon as next year. Lloyds Pharmacy is ‘evaluating’ Winterton’s announcement to determine how it can ‘evolve’ its business model, says Lloyds Pharmacy commercial director Mark Green, who heads design buying for the company.

Moreover, Boots the Chemists estimates that it could open at least 50 additional pharmacies in its 1400-strong estate, if the legislation is passed by Parliament.

The sky is the limit when it comes to designing the format of this potential crop of chemists. ‘Creating a credible pharmacy offer will be a design issue,’ says Michelle Du-Prât, insights director at Household. The consultancy, a 20/20 breakaway, recently created a communications scheme for Boots, which is being trialled in its Leicester and Wolverhampton sites.

‘We’re all quite used to the Boots format, but there’s less and less reason for pharmacies to exist on their own,’ she says. ‘If people can prove [the authenticity of] their offer, it gets interesting. We could have pharmacies in gyms and Holland & Barrett health stores.’ Even convenience stores and petrol stations could credibly extend their offers to include dispensing NHS prescriptions, she says.

Era Studio partner Peter Emrys-Roberts, who designed the private consulting booths for Boots’ stores (DW 5 August 2004), suggests a more radical pharmaceutical format could burst on to the scene. ‘These edge-of-town pharmacies will start from scratch,’ he observes. ‘A new design brief could be set up by someone like Walmart, who would blow the Boots format apart.’

Both Du-Prât and Emrys-Roberts believe that established pharmacies could also offer design opportunities, as they seek to stave off impending competition.

‘Pharmacies the size of Boots can put some serious thought into it,’ Emrys-Roberts says. ‘But I have a feeling that design won’t feature in the smaller ones’ recipe. There’s loads of scope there, but there’s just not the budget. They’re retailing on the same level as convenience stores,’ he explains. Still, Emrys-Roberts says independent outlets must fine-tune their environments if they are to remain viable in a competitive market. ‘Smaller pharmacies don’t think about [creating] an experience that encourages you to put things in your basket,’ he says. ‘Most don’t even give you a basket.’

Proprietors should consider ‘navigability’, sensible product groupings to ‘make it easier for customers to shop’, and better lighting. ‘It’s up to them, though, to make clever design decisions,’ Emrys-Roberts adds.

Design opportunities at smaller pharmacies do exist, Du-Prât insists; they just lie more in branding and graphic design than interiors. ‘[Independent outlets] have to be about expertise, service and the kind of relationship you can’t get in a bigger store or chain,’ she says.

Local, independent pharmacies should position themselves as ‘lifelines’ in the community, Du-Prât maintains, citing American lifestyle store Target.

‘Target stores hook up with local hospitals and show themselves in society. It’s even part of their graphic communications.

‘Maybe local pharmacies would be able to make their [links with] the community stronger,’ she muses. The next step would be strengthening their print materials. ‘They have to make more impactful statements, where people can easily see what’s going on,’ Du-Prât adds.

In time, on-line pharmacies could also provide fertile territory for designers, says Poke creative director Simon Waterfall, who is working with Boots. ‘At the moment, no-one is buying prescription medicine on-line,’ he says. Indeed, there are just three on-line pharmacies – Boots.com, Pharmacy2U.co.uk and Allcures. com – to the UK’s 12 000 retail chemists.

Before on-line pharmaceutical services really take off, Waterfall says they will have to gain the brand authority and trust that retail pharmacies already enjoy. ‘We need to see people trusting their medical records with every pharmacist. How would you feel if your records were available to everyone, and not just the doctor you’ve been going to for 14 years?’

On-line services will have to prepare people to provide ‘a lot of information’ in order to ‘get a lot of convenience’, he says. Web-based pharmacies will then have the potential to enjoy the same success as e-commerce sites.

Boots is optimistic about changes in the industry. ‘The pharmacy is the heart of our business, and anything that makes it easier to reach people is surely a good thing,’ says the spokesman.

It will be interesting to see if the UK’s independent pharmacies, which depend on NHS contracts for 80 per cent of their work, agree.

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