Mixed fortunes prompt retailers to look at recruitment plans carefully
Fears that 2008 was going to be a difficult year for pharmacy retailers have proved correct and, as some UK pharmacies’ incomes continue to falter, it is clear that, during 2009, the multiple operators will have to take a long hard look at their expansion and recruitment plans.
Throughout 2008, for example, category M cuts, changes to the UK distribution arrangements, coupled with the weakness in Sterling and more conservative consumer spending resulted in Celesio, the parent company of Lloydspharmacy and AAH, warning of “reduced reliance on the British market”. Declining over-the-counter business has additionally been cited as a factor in the 2.7 per cent decline in revenue seen in the first quarter of this year.
Category M-related financial woes have also plagued the Co-operative Pharmacy, which, despite increasing pharmacy sales 37.5 per cent over the year to January, reported profits down almost 14 per cent. It is the same story at Alliance Boots, which recently also warned of the effect of lower generic reimbursement prices.
No meaningful replacement income
In the absence of meaningful replacement income from new NHS service development, the effect on the chains’ pharmacy opening plans is becoming clear. Typical of others is the Co-operative Pharmacy, which says it is now looking at branch relocation rather than large-scale openings over the coming year, according to company commercial director Gordon Farquhar.
But, for the supermarkets, whose exposure to the vagaries of NHS reimbursement is more limited, it is clear that expansion remains on the cards. Tesco, for example, recently reported growth in its pharmacy business and, for this reason, has no plans to rethink its ongoing and openly stated “aggressive expansion plans”.
Asda has stated it has plans to open 30 more pharmacies over the next 12 months, bringing the chain pharmacy total to 200. Superintendent pharmacist John Evans is particularly hopeful that the NHS’s recent brush with swine influenza will encourage ministers to take a lenient line on 100-hour pharmacies. He said: “We have been approached by primary care trusts needing to secure access to flu support and we have been able to demonstrate the value of pharmacies that offer late opening and easy access. We are hopeful that this will help ministers to come to a satisfactory decision relating to extended hour pharmacy openings.”
So, with fewer new pharmacy openings on the cards, what is the forecast for recruitment to the community pharmacy sector?
For locums wanting to remain in locum employment, the picture looks a little bleak. Tesco, Asda, Lloydspharmacy and Day Lewis all say they are increasingly being directly approached by experienced locums looking for, as Stephen Wellings, head of human resources, Day Lewis, puts it, “the safe haven of employed positions”. This, possibly, goes some way towards explaining the multiples reducing reliance and expenditure on external vacancy advertising.
Income stability aside, it is possible that forthcoming professional and regulatory changes, in particular the impact of the responsible pharmacist regulations and the General Pharmaceutical Council, are driving the locum agenda. As Barbara Sutherland, head of capability at Lloydspharmacy, explains: “For locums, the regulations mean having to become familiar with new standard operating procedures every day and new systems.”
Companies’ budgetary limitations may also be playing a part. Lloydspharmacy, for example, reported having “challenging targets to reduce locum numbers”, according to Ms Sutherland. And, looking at vacancy rates, it is possible that this may not be too hard to achieve.
Asda, for example, reports vacancy levels running at just 10 per cent of the total pharmacist headcount, which is well under half the rate seen at this time last year. It also reports staff turnover rates of 26.8 per cent, also down on last year. At Day Lewis, the vacancy rates are also down and, for the past three months, have averaged only 13 across the entire chain, compared with the 18 to 25 vacancies seen last year.
Efforts to improve preregistration placement numbers and retention rates are undoubtedly contributing to the new stability in the pharmacy employment market. Lloydspharmacy says that preregistration places are up 20 per cent year-on-year and, currently, retention rates are running at around 80–90 per cent. According to Ms Sutherland, this is due to the clinical and commercial support that candidates receive to make them “job-ready” at the end of their placements.
Services development opportunities
Whether the driver is exasperation with ongoing NHS medicine reimbursement policies and retail gloom, or real enthusiasm for new service development in community pharmacy buoyed by the prospect of the “absent” pharmacist, it is clear that, for pharmacists keen to develop a service-based career in community pharmacy, the prospects of well paid work look good.
Like the Co-operative, Day Lewis admits that its focus for 2009 is on maximising income from services and, for this reason, it says it is prepared to pay well for quality candidates who can deliver volume dispensing and maximise service income. As a result, demand for the less experienced European Economic Area candidates who can be trained up has diminished, says Mr Wellings.
Lloydspharmacy is also investing in technical innovation, including automated dispensing equipment and in-staff training, including the use of cluster experts to “get the right attitude” among staff to support service development.
Understaffed pharmacies fail
The chains also see the wisdom in increasing their investment in support staff, who are seen as a key way to attract and retain quality pharmacists. Mr Wellings says: “Branches that are grossly understaffed start to fail, dispensing errors occur, they have personnel problems, lose nursing homes and then start to ramp up the demand for senior management (costly) time. An extra few hours’ dispenser cover is cheap by comparison.”
In an effort to reassure candidates about companies’ ethical credentials, many pharmacy operators have begun taking a branded approach to their recruitment advertising, preferring to paint a picture of professional idyll rather than just place an advertisement for a job that needs to be filled. In return, they are demanding candidates with services accreditation, and it is Asda’s experience that the tactic is working.
Mr Evans says that pharmacists now approach the company saying they are “fed up working in dispensing factories”. Day Lewis echoes this, saying that candidates are increasingly looking for potential pharmacy employers to assure them of continuing professional integrity. As Mr Wellings says: “The first thing any candidate asks is not ‘what are you paying’ but rather ‘how many items, and how many dispensers will I have to help me’.”
With consumer and NHS spending looking set for a difficult year, community pharmacy operators are showing that they are keen to explore alternative revenue sources. For pharmacists who are prepared to work with them, the prospects of well paid, regular and clinically satisfying work look good.
Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10968110
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