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Retailers respond: Walgreens Boots Alliance

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Pharmacies have been elevated to an even higher level.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles on how retailers are responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

I have worked in pharmacies for more than 40 years, and I’m a pharmacist myself. I’ve never known a situation like what we’ve experienced over recent weeks with the COVID-19 ­crisis.

None of us has. This is an incredible and extraordinary moment — a global pandemic of a speed and scale not seen in our lifetimes.

alex gourlay

Alex Gourlay

Yet, through all the uncertainty, as we’ve adapted in every corner of our industry to address the critical needs of our customers, patients and employees, we’re seeing something else quite incredible as well. The role of pharmacists, and the teams that support them every single day, have never been more important. Although pharmacies have always been there for their communities, in good times and bad, their value has suddenly increased even further — particularly in the minds of ­customers.

As a global company with operations in 25 countries on four continents, we first saw the dangers of the coronavirus in China, where we own a minority stake in more than 4,000 GuoDa pharmacies. Our response — not just in China, but as the crisis began to spread across Asia, Europe, the U.K., the U.S., Mexico and South America — was not just about adjusting our operations to provide as many medicines and essential products as we could. It also was about disseminating public health information to help protect the communities we serve, and finding ways to meet the needs of our customers as we all adjust to a disconcerting change in daily life.

Within our supply chains across WBA, we adapted quickly to restrictions on direct exports from China, Hong Kong and India, leaning on our networks of suppliers to find alternate sourcing. Early on, we increased inventory in seasonal illness — fever and cough/cold remedies — and we have kept these items well stocked. In categories depleted by panic buying, we have worked with manufacturing partners around the clock to accelerate production, and have increased delivery frequency to stores with our fleets and in partnership with Fed­Ex, setting company records in amount of volume moved in some essential categories.

As the pandemic reached the U.S., we adapted in real time to changing dynamics. Walgreens started by offering free prescription delivery, followed quickly by drive-through pickup of essential front-end items. Stores began operating under reduced hours (to provide time for proper cleaning and restocking), with special shopping time established for seniors and their caregivers. Our clinical teams stay in constant contact with governmental health authorities, implementing appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our team members as well as our customers — from advancing social distancing efforts with floor markings to illustrate a safe 6-foot distance to installing sneeze guards in our ­pharmacies.

We’ve leaned into our deep health expertise and commitment to communities, working with the U.S. and U.K. governments to offer COVID-19 tests in designated areas to those on the front lines. By the end of March, the first of these testing sites went live just miles from our corporate headquarters in suburban Chicago. The same weekend, several similar testing sites supported by our Boots teams began testing first responders in the U.K.

The response has been consistent and fantastic — the DNA of a pharmacy-led company at which everyone has played a tireless role in problem solving. We’re seeing it across our support offices, distribution centers and call centers, all the way through to our pharmacy counters.

And there is much more to come. The world is shifting as a result of this pandemic. Customers have entered a new way of behaving and thinking about their health, their vulnerability and their communities. Many aspects of life and care will change forever. As a result, companies including WBA will have to reevaluate every service we provide. We’ll be relied upon in this new world to get medications and products to customers faster because of the proximity of our brick-and-mortar locations. Flexibility in supply chains and among wholesalers and delivery partners will become critical.

What won’t change? The heart of the retail pharmacy.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve received countless texts and emails sharing tales from our stores: a patient receiving advice or comfort, customers getting basic essentials in their moment of greatest need. These stories are so simple, so otherwise ordinary to retail pharmacies, and yet in these times they have taken my breath away. I am so proud to be part of an organization and industry that does such important work — work that is now understood better than ever before.

Pharmacy matters. It matters today, it mattered yesterday, and it will matter tomorrow, in both calm and dramatic times. All of us need access to professionals in the neighborhood who can help at the drop of a hat — access to their care, their guidance, their understanding ear.

We’re providing that access constantly, ceaselessly. The world is watching us, turning to us. And in that, we should all take tremendous pride.

Alex Gourlay is co-chief operating officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance.


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