The pharmacy is just one of those places. Like the DMV or the dentist, it’s one of those places consumers have to visit from time to time — but no one really gets excited about the task.
Part of that, of course, is just structural. Going to a pharmacy usually implies one is not well and is seeking something to make them feel better. The pharmacy might provide a customer with the cure for what ails them, but that doesn’t mean the trip to the pharmacy is a retail experience that is pleasurable.
Until very recently, it was also a retail experience very few customers had much in the way of a choice about either. While eCommerce has been able to do a lot of retail heavy-lifting for a long time — urged on by the power of free, two-day shipping — pharmacy products are something of a unique category for a variety of reasons. A customer who needs medication, for example, may require it on demand, such that two-day shipping or even next-day shipping is not a realistic solution.
Moreover, pharmacy goods are a bit different than apparel or electronics. Getting it wrong can be extremely frustrating or even life-threatening.
The last 18 to 24 months have seen a profound shift in the eCommerce paradigm, as consumers in urban areas are increasingly able to order online and receive delivery of an ever-expanding array of goods all in the same day. In that eCommerce environment — localized to New York City — ePharmacy startup Capsule is hoping to change the way people buy their prescriptions and view their relationship with their pharmacist.
“We believe that we can use eCommerce and personalization to create better health outcomes,” Capsule CEO Eric Kinariwala told Fast Company. “We can unlock service for consumers.”
As Capsule sees it, there is little in the in-real-life pharmacy experience offered in the U.S.’ 70,000 or so pharmacies that actually ought to require a customer’s physical presence. If same-day delivery can be offered, then the only challenge remaining is giving customers access to expert advice as needed for their various ailments, without requiring them to actually meet face to face. Capsule balances that by offering customers access to its team of pharmacists via text, email or phone call.
Which, its CEO noted, is actually a pretty significant upgrade to the experience of talking to a pharmacist at a pharmacy, because privacy in the encounter is baked in from the word go. In a store, the customer can huddle with their pharmacist to ask questions; but those queries are offered and answered at a small space at the end of the counter, which is far from private. Which means if customers have a question they are embarrassed to ask, and there are other people around, more likely than not they just aren’t going to ask it.
Capsule customers, on the other hand, are six times more likely to interact with the digitally available pharmacist than they are with their in-store counterpart, according to Kinariwala.
“There are two keys to making sure that someone takes their medicine,” he said. “Make it simple, and do it with a partner.”
Capsule, in essence, wants to be that partner for its patients, making sure that as a partner it is keeping the experience simple, direct and efficient. On a fundamental level, Kinariwala said, the pharmacy is actually on the front lines of healthcare provision, and eCommerce tactics and technology can be crucial in shoring up that front line.
That can be hands-on, high-touch, customer-facing interactions like frequent follow-ups to make sure the medicine is being taken and the patient understands its uses. But it’s also backend clarity and a strong data organization that makes sure the sensitive supply is clearly managed and that the system is always ready to fill and refill prescriptions.
Building a Simple Tool for a Complex System
Like most innovators, Kinariwala found himself fixing a problem at scale that he first encountered individually.
In his pre-entrepreneurial days when he was still working in finance, the CEO found himself with a sinus infection. A comedy of escalating errors in fulfilling a prescription to cure said sinus infection inspired Capsule. A better customer experience was possible, but Kinariwala saw that it didn’t necessarily have to be in-person.
The problem with good ideas in eCommerce, of course, is that they are highly contagious, and Capsule is still in early days: It may soon face competition from retail’s resident serial killer, Amazon, who is heavily leaning toward a move on the pharmacy space. A move that so badly scared CVS — physical retail’s dominant player in pharmacy — that it actually bought a health insurance company for the synergies it would generate.
There’s taking a threat seriously, and then there’s taking a threat so seriously an entity spends $69 billion trying to head it off.
But pharmacy is hard — something Amazon learned a few days after its eyed expansion was announced, when it became clear that its attempt to get a wholesaler license in Maine failed when the state threw it out for not being completed by the deadline.
“Our key takeaway from this experience is that Amazon will have to endure the same learning curve and regulatory hurdles in the space as any other company,” RBC analysts George Hill, Stephen Hagan and Lee Lueder wrote in a research note. “The Maine experience reminds us that despite its mystique, Amazon is not immune to making mistakes or infallible.”
Pharmacy is hard — with a very narrow margin for error.
For Capsule, according to Kinariwala, the bigger vision isn’t just about expanding eCommerce to its next logical frontier.
The CEO feels that both of these earlier waves of eCommerce rely too heavily on creating services that remove humans.
Instead, he said, it’s about “blending the human with technology. Everyone needs some looking after sometimes.”