Mothers with sick children, elderly patients, and customers who simply want to pick up their medication without making a full grocery trip are flocking to pharmacies that provide drive-through services. Supermarkets, like Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; the Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine; and Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, as well as mass merchants like Wal-Mart, and nearly every new freestanding chain drug store are responding to the drive-through popularity.
"We find it's a good service to provide when [customers] don't need to make the grocery trip," said John Fegan, vice president, pharmacy, Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., Quincy, Mass.
The growth of pharmacy drive-through has been steady. Seven years ago, only one major chain provided prescription drive-through access, according to Rod Reese, director of business development, Diebold, North Canton, Ohio, which provides comprehensive drive-through window systems. "Since then, every major chain in every channel is providing them or installing them," he said. "If they haven't installed it, they're looking at it."
Over one-third of supermarket companies surveyed offer a drive-through pharmacy unit in at least one of their stores, according to the "2001 Supermarket Pharmacy Survey" conducted by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. This was the first time the drive-through question appeared in the annual survey. The median number of drive-through operations is two per company, dispensing a median of 15% of the prescriptions sold per day per store, according to the report. FMI received responses from 55 companies representing 3,265 stores across North America.
Retailers and analysts agreed that convenience and maintaining a competitive edge have been the driving factors in making pharmacy drive-through a more common service.
"Our philosophy is that they're good for customer retention and certainly welcomed by customers for convenience," said Curtis Hartin, director of professional services, Schnuck Markets. Four of the chain's 81 stores with pharmacies provide drive-up pharmacy windows, and two more installations are planned later this year, he said
"It's part of our wish list," Hartin told SN. "Whenever we build stores, if it's possible we would like [drive-through pharmacies] to be there."
At the Michigan division of Kroger Co., Jim Szyskoski, assistant pharmacy merchandiser, said, "Drive-through provides a service for convenience, and that promotes customer loyalty." He said the 12 out of 74 stores in the division offer drive-throughs and they are very popular, especially with young families and the elderly.
Setbacks for the service's growth potential, like fear that drive-through would erode impulse grocery business, have turned out to be false, according to the retailers polled by SN.
"Some grocery people look at it as a negative, but it has increased new business in those locations, and it has brought people back who went to other stores that had those services," Fegan said.
"Drive-through has certainly paid off," Hartin agreed. "We recouped costs in a short period of time."
The fears of retailers who think that drive-through pharmacy windows will impact the time customers spend in stores and thus decrease impulse purchases is ill-founded, said Harry Lattanzio, president, PRS Pharmacy Services, Latrobe, Pa., a company that aids retailers in implementing in-store pharmacy services. Instead, drive-through "gives customers another reason to shop at your stores and make it their store of choice," Lattanzio said.
The service has been so successful that an increasing number of retailers make sure sites will accommodate pharmacy drive-through before breaking ground on new stores.
"A vast majority of drug stores being built are freestanding, and one reason is to accommodate drive-through, as opposed to 10 to 15 years ago when they were [in strip shopping centers]," said Terry Roberts, director of sales and marketing, E.F. Bavis and Associates, Maineville, Ohio, a pharmacy drive-through equipment manufacturer.
The evolution from strip-mall retail locations to freestanding stores has not been the only change for retail pharmacies. The progression from a pharmacy drive-up sliding window to a technologically advanced, secure double-lane operation with a telephone audio system has created even more convenience for customers.
Costs for installing a drive-through system range from $5,000 for a simple window-and-drawer setup to $50,000 and $250,000 for a remote pharmacy kiosk, depending on its sophistication, Reese said.
Schnucks operates drive-up windows to optimize face-to-face contact between pharmacist and patient, Hartin told SN
"When there's trust involved, people would rather talk to a human being than a television screen," he said.
E.F. Bavis and Associates also offers an advanced telephone audio system where patients are able to have a private conversation with their pharmacist instead of using a static-filled "call" button. The technology has been popular with retailers like Walgreens, Deerfield, Ill., and Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets, Bentonville, Ark. Roberts declined to disclose costs of the system.
"The system has progressed from open, sliding-glass windows similar to fast-food restaurant setups to bullet-resistant, fixed windows and drawers to make it a safer environment," he said.
A sliding-window system "doesn't provide the professional image that pharmacists would like to project," Roberts said.
No matter which system retailers have opted to use, the primary concern is to offer the drive-through option. "Keep [customers] coming to you rather than drug stores," Hartin said.