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Pharmacy gets McMullen’s endorsement

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Rodney McMullen

Rodney McMullen

Rodney McMullen’s presence at the NACDS Annual Meeting late last month helped energize an event already noteworthy for the high level of intensity evident among attendees eager to get back to doing business in person. The chairman and chief executive officer of Kroger, the nation’s leading operator of traditional supermarkets and a burgeoning power in omnichannel retailing, lauded pharmacy’s contributions to the war against COVID, shed some light on current trends, and stressed the need for retailers to always make the customer the focal point of what they do.

In dialogue with Colleen Lindholz, the president of Kroger’s health care business, who concluded her one-year term as NACDS chairman at the meeting, McMullen recalled the early days of the pandemic, when the Trump administration enlisted the assistance of pharmacies. Kroger and other major chains, including CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, responded quickly, setting up COVID testing sites and, as soon as they were authorized to do so, offering ­immunizations.

“One of the things I always tell our teams is I would not have been greedy enough to expect of them what they’ve actually delivered,” he said. “And the same is true for everybody in this room and all your teams as well. We are on the front lines every day, and what our teams have stepped up and delivered is just nothing short of amazing.”

To date, retail pharmacies have administered more than 245 million doses of COVID vaccine and tens of millions of tests. That performance has altered perceptions of the industry.

“When you look at pharmacists, you talk about a profession that people look at differently today than two years and three months ago,” McMullen said. “Pharmacists have really stepped up. And I think society, and more importantly, the U.S. government, is just starting to recognize how impactful and how important that pharmacist is to our communities.”

He singled out the agility displayed by pharmacy operators and other essential retailers in response to COVID, together with the unprecedented degree of collaboration, as critical factors in bringing the pandemic under control. (Lindholz acknowledged the insights that Walmart and Walgreens shared when Kroger was developing its coronavirus testing program.)

“If you look at all the things that Kroger learned, we shared them; we called it the blueprint,” said McMullen. “All of us in this room work in big companies and we have amazing resources on how to keep people safe. But when you think about small companies, they really don’t have that, so we decided to share all of our internal documents on the things that we were doing. And we had over 10,000 small companies download the documents. To me, those are just things that all of us did to try to get the U.S. back operating as normal as possible, as quick as possible.”

The new normal for retailers will require developing innovative ways to serve consumers whose expectations and shopping habits have been fundamentally altered by the pandemic. McMullen said that Kroger — whose online business surged from a $5 billion to $10 billion run rate in three days when COVID hit — and its competitors must prepare for an omnichannel future: “What we find is customers really like for us to be able to have what we call a seamless experience; sometimes they want delivery, sometimes they want pickup and sometimes they want to shop in the store. The only requirement is they want to do it when they want to, as opposed to us forcing them. So if you look at everything that we’re doing, we’re trying to create that broad experience for the customer to bounce back and forth.”

He went on to assert that, if COVID is to be kept in check, the full potential of pharmacists must be realized, a case he recently made to Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator.

“One of the conversations we had was how do you have support for pharmacists to be able to have that same right [as doctors and nurse practitioners to test and treat for COVID],” McMullen said. “Because, as all of us know, pharmacists are an incredibly impressive group of people with amazing talent and knowledge. How do we work together to be able for those people to work at the top of their license and capability? The argument to him was that one of the easiest ways to affect and reduce the 400 people a day who are dying [from COVID] is just give pharmacists that capability.”

Coming at a time when retail pharmacy continues to face difficult issues related to reimbursement, McMullen’s participation in the Annual Meeting was reassuring. It demonstrated that pharmacy’s message resonates in C-suites across America, and that the industry’s prospects can best be served by engaging a broad spectrum of stakeholders.


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