Pharmacy’s new era—in the home

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Customers of the $460 billion retail pharmacy sector are increasingly demanding a pharmacy experience that mirrors the rest of their retail experiences—omnichannel, convenient, and with home delivery at the center.1Meet the next-normal consumer,” August 17, 2020,; “The Update: How Walgreens’ customer-focused marketing is driving business growth,” Google, September 2020, While interests vary meaningfully across customer archetypes and can be segmented by various factors (for example, complexity of medical condition, digital experience preferences, and proximity to stores), our pharmacy market research has indicated that there are two key patient archetypes across the spectrum of experience. Making the experience right for these two groups will prepare pharmacies for a broader spectrum of customers.

Patients in one archetype, focused on convenience, are beginning to experiment with new, digital-first pharmacy entrants that facilitate in-home pharmacy experiences, especially during reflections on the COVID-19 crisis.2

Customers in the other archetype—those with multiple chronic conditions—are seeking higher-touch clinical support models in the home and digitally, as well as wanting guidance from a trusted pharmacist in managing multiple medications.3 These developments put pressure on both pharmacy incumbents and new players attempting to define their future pharmacy value propositions. At the same time, these systemic changes present new focus areas for stakeholders across the value chain, giving players a chance to move quickly.

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High-value patient archetypes

Two patient archetypes should be top priority for stakeholders: one that is primarily concerned with convenience, and one that desires an ongoing relationship with their pharmacist to support their chronic conditions and medication needs.

Convenience, convenience, convenience

The thought driving this archetype can be summed up as follows: “I want to spend as little time and energy as possible interacting with my pharmacy.” This tends to be the primary goal of young professionals, busy parents, active retirees, and others. Convenient, direct-to-consumer new pharmacy entrants are working to meet this need and, based on recent venture-funding rounds that value these players in the billions, are achieving early market traction.4 A physician can prescribe a new prescription virtually, the customer pays online, and the prescription shows up a day later. In addition to providing convenience, delivery and medication synchronization (such as pharmacist coordination of refills) may improve medication adherence in certain use cases.5

Clinical support for chronic conditions

Patients in the second archetype, in contrast, are looking for much-needed support from their pharmacy (and pharmacist) in managing and adhering to multiple medications. Their driving thought is “I have multiple medications, and I need support from a pharmacist I know and trust.” Polychronic and complex chronic homebound patients taking multiple medications often have adherence challenges and could benefit from a high-touch pharmacist model that includes, for example, adherence counseling and medication reconciliation.6 In addition, complex chronic homebound patients are at a greater risk for high medical costs, including complications of chronic diseases.7

Why stakeholders may welcome the shift to home

The who, what, when, where, and how of pharmacy-care delivery is rapidly evolving: from traditional models to tech-enabled models, from in-person pickup to delivery, and from outpatient hospitals and clinics to the home. This shift may be welcomed by many stakeholders because e-commerce penetration in retail pharmacy is low relative to most other retail categories (exhibit).

E-commerce penetration in pharmacy is lower than in most other industries.

A number of factors are driving the shift to in-home pharmacy care for convenience seekers:

In addition to demand tailwinds, several major factors are driving the shift for those needing clinical support for their chronic conditions:

The future of healthcare: Value creation through next-generation business models

The future of healthcare: Value creation through next-generation business models

The challenges of moving the pharmacy into the home

Several challenges of serving the pharmacy market have delayed this move into the home:

  1. Pharmacy is more than drug fulfillment and delivery. New entrants have quickly shown they can offer drug fulfillment and two-day delivery. However, many patients rely on clinical support from their pharmacists. This can manifest as medication review and reconciliation, as adherence counseling, as limited prescribing, and, even more broadly, as disease management.12 To offer these services at home requires a fleet of pharmacists who can meet patients where they are, telepharmacy systems, or both.
  2. The unit economics of this sector are challenging.13 Competitive cost of goods sold (COGS) and reimbursement rates often come with scale, and it can take new entrants meaningful time to establish themselves.
  3. Today’s in-home offerings from digital disrupters can be limited depending on the prescription need. For example, offerings may not include Schedule 2 narcotics, may only focus on one- or two-day delivery (for example, exclude difficult-to-deliver but immediately needed acute scripts), and may not always offer both traditional and specialty (low-volume but high-value) drugs simultaneously.

Implications for pharmacy incumbents and new entrants

The recent systemic changes in the market present risks for players across the pharmacy value chain. The new, consumer-focused digital disrupters have strong advantages given the newness of their systems, their speed and agility, and their customer-centric foundation.14 However, incumbents are also well positioned given their existing platforms, high volumes, and large customer bases in a business that depends heavily on volume. Yet these same incumbents will likely need to do more to stay ahead of the competition. While national retail pharmacy chains have begun to offer home delivery (for example, free one- or two-day delivery with same-day delivery for an additional fee), it is not yet clear whether they will keep up with the delivery speed and experience of new e-commerce players.15 To be successful in this market, incumbents will likely need to fundamentally rethink their existing processes, workflows, technologies, and systems so that they can engage the various customer archetypes in the settings and locations most important to them.

Potential actions in the next normal

Payers have an opportunity to build partnerships across the physical and virtual continuum to create a more coordinated healthcare ecosystem, to improve patient experience, and to drive down the cost of care. Partnerships with a direct-to-consumer pharmacy—likely an attractive offering for the highly convenience-oriented customer archetype—could create a differentiated experience that drives growth and retention. Payers also have an opportunity to improve ratings by partnering with digital pharmacies to close care gaps, improve adherence, and manage multiple medications.

Finally, payers have the opportunity to bundle intensive clinical-care models with mail-order pharmacy capabilities, meeting the needs of patients with chronic conditions. Payers are increasingly focused on chronic care and disease management—driven in part by the shift toward risk-bearing and integrated-care-delivery models—and are often willing to reimburse for in-home clinical services.16

Success in this space will likely require core pharmacy assets (for example, the ability to sort and repackage medication, to deliver directly to patients at home, and to provide on-demand pharmacist consultations) coupled with direct-to-home assets and access to home health agencies and providers, for example.

Systemic changes have fueled new types of services for key patient archetypes and focus areas for stakeholders across the pharmacy value chain. While near-term pressures may exist for both incumbents and new entrants, those that move quickly will be able to make substantial progress in these focus areas.

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