In an annual rite of fall, supermarkets are gearing up for influenza season, taking advantage of a public service opportunity with aggressive promotional tactics to create awareness about the virus, said retailers.
The programs, which have made retailers the destination of choice for flu shots, also give store traffic a shot in the arm, and have become a cornerstone in supermarkets' drive to establish themselves as whole health providers, industry observers said.
"Generally, pharmacists are becoming more aware of the need for this service. Most forward-thinking pharmacists are grasping it," Curtis Hartin, director of professional services, Schnuck Markets, told SN. "It's good for business and for attracting store traffic."
At $15 to $20, flu shots are turning into a significant retail offering. Between 8 million and 9 million individual immunization shots were administered to patients at chain pharmacy locations in 2002, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation Immunization Survey, which polled 48 chain member companies representing 18,000 stores. NACDS, Alexandria, Va., represents supermarket chains with pharmacies, as well as drug stores.
Among the survey respondents, 500 chain pharmacists actively administered vaccinations/immunizations, while others hired wellness providers to administer the vaccines. Seventy-two percent of the chain survey respondents reported that providing immunizations increased sales of other products, and 97% of respondents said that pharmacy-based patient immunization is a "great and proven service that their customers value."
In contrast to the last three years when vaccine shipments and distribution were delayed, sufficient supplies for flu vaccine should be available during the upcoming flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. CDC estimates that vaccine manufacturers will produce 85 million doses of the flu vaccine in 2003, up from 79 million doses last year.
Access to flu vaccinations in retail settings like supermarkets "can only be a positive, as long as steps are taken for quality control," said Rhonda Smith, spokeswoman, CDC.
In an informal survey, SN found a long list of supermarkets offering flu shots. Among them: Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.; Dahl's Food Markets, Des Moines, Iowa; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; Giant Food, Landover, Md.; Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine; Harris-Teeter, Matthews, N.C.; multiple divisions of the Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Metropolitan Market, Seattle; Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J.; Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.; Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif.; Schnuck Markets, St. Louis; Shaw's Supermarkets, West Bridgewater, Mass.; Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif.; and Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.
Meanwhile almost all major drug chains offer flu shots, including Walgreens, Deerfield, Ill.; Rite Aid, Camp Hill, Pa.; CVS, Woonsocket, R.I.; Eckerd, Largo, Fla.; and Longs Drug Stores, Walnut Creek, Calif.
But the big mass merchandisers are apparently less involved in flu shots. While Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., offers FluMist -- the new intranasal flu vaccine from MedImmune, Gaithersburg, Md. -- in 1,000 stores, it does not have a companywide flu shot program, said Danette Thompson, spokeswoman. However, individual stores work with local health organizations to provide flu shots, she said. Target, Minneapolis, did not respond to calls for comment.
"By and large, it's become a public service and a way to attract new customers, because we can offer something in our [New York metropolitan] market that many of our competitors do not have," said Rich Savner, spokesman, Pathmark Stores. This marks Pathmark's eighth year providing flu vaccinations at a cost of $20 each, with a program that runs in October and November. The retailer administered 36,000 flu shots last year, Savner said.
Many chains are active in letting customers know about the service through advertising and in-store promotional materials.
Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, for example, heavily advertised its first-time offer of a free flu shot for any customer who purchases a new prescription or transfers a prescription to Giant Eagle in conjunction with their Giant Eagle Advantage Card between Aug. 31 and Oct. 4, said Brian Frey, marketing assistant, corporate communications. The flu shot program will run mid-October through December.
Flu vaccination services are one way to position pharmacists as "neighborhood dispensers of wellness" and industry leaders in health care, Frey said.
"Flu shots play an important role in the prevention of serious illness, and we feel flu vaccinations are a good opportunity to promote wellness within the communities we live and serve," he said.
Seventeen Giant Eagle pharmacists are trained to administer flu shots and they will be covering about 40 locations in the Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, markets, said Frey. The local Visiting Nurse Foundation, along with Maxim Healthcare and Healthscreen of Ohio, based in Jackson, Miss., will manage the program.
The motivation to "carve out a niche" has propelled retailers to offer and promote immunization services more aggressively, said Hartin of Schnuck Markets. The retailer's flu shot schedule will be available on www.schnucks.com, and Schnucks also put up posters about the offering two weeks ago, Hartin said.
Some retailers like Ukrop's are also offering an alternative to flu shots through FluMist as a "logical complement to Ukrop's flu shot program," said John Beckner, director, pharmacy and whole health. " There's a segment of the population out there that has an aversion to needles. That group that still wants to protect themselves against the flu but doesn't want to get stuck, FluMist is a viable alternative," he said. FluMist costs $54.95 at the retailer, he said.
Stater Bros. will offer and promote flu vaccinations for the third year in a row this fall after continued positive customer feedback on the service, said Susan Atkinson, vice president, corporate affairs.
"It's been very successful. We do it as a convenience to our customers, and it's a worthwhile service for our customers," she said. Flu shots will be administered in 110 Stater Bros. stores for $17. Pneumonia shots will also be administered upon request, Atkinson said.
Stater Bros. will promote the vaccination programs through in-store signage, post the vaccination schedule on its Web site and create awareness of it in its weekly circulars. OnSite Wellness, Torrance, Calif., will perform the inoculation services, she said.
Supermarkets have an opportunity in creating "convenience and access" to these immunization programs, said Steve Wright, national director for wellness services, Maxim Healthcare, Columbia, Md., an immunization service provider that administers flu shot programs in supermarkets like Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; Ahold USA, Chantilly, Va.; and Hannaford Bros.
"Supermarkets are doing the best they can do to provide this service and be a partner in the community for health," he said.
Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., has offered flu shots, tetanus and pneumonia vaccinations in its 40 pharmacies for the past five years as a service to customers, not as an aggressive promotional strategy to woo customers, noted Jeff Lowrance, spokesman. "We look at it as good care and good service rather than an avenue to attract new customers," he said.