At times in my career helping veterinary practices become stronger businesses, I’ve felt as though a little tough love was warranted to get owners and managers to focus on the more important issues facing them. Chewy.com and the demise of the in-house pharmacy is one such instance. The industry has a penchant for boogeymen. VCA, Banfield/Mars, Chewy: all of them at some point needlessly scared the bejesus out of independent practice owners. Yet the contrarian in me looks at each of these chapters in time and sees not some existential threat; but a silver lining for practice owners. All of them presented an opportunity for practices to become better.
Of course Chewy is eating your lunch when it comes to prescription food
Pardon the pun, but, of course, Chewy is eating your lunch when it comes to prescription food. They are undoubtedly a formidable marketing and e-commerce force, but that segment of the marketplace was also served to them on a silver platter. Few independent practices did themselves any favors in attempting to protect prescription food sales. What do I mean? Well, think about the typical series of events when it comes to food. The veterinarian makes a diagnosis for which one of Hill’s or Royal Canin’s products would be an appropriate remedy. The pet owner walks out the door with either: a) bag/case of food, b) a “trial” size with the practice ordering more on the client’s behalf, or c) a paper script and vague guidance on where to get the food. It is erroneous to think that it is here where Chewy is causing headaches for most practices. Practices that take the first path are doing well. Yes, the odds are good that these practices are mismanaging their food inventories, but that is a topic for another article. Path two can be just fine if there is a concerted effort to ensure that the pet owner actually comes back in for the specially ordered food and pays for it. I cannot begin to tell you how many cases of food I’ve seen on practice shelves that were special orders for clients months ago, but never got picked up or paid for! The last path is basically an invitation for Chewy and other outlets to ferret your clients away and should be avoided at all costs.
It’s always been about the refills with them
What happens next? This is actually where Chewy has made such deep inroads: the refill. Surprise, surprise: dogs and cats eat food. They polish off that first “order” and need more. What is your practice doing to proactively keep that client? Practice management systems are terribly inept at logical reminders for food. I have yet to come across a practice that is attempting to manually track portion guidelines for the food they sell to remind pet owners to buy more. Alas, the vast majority of practices are taking a passive, wait-and-see-if-they-come-back attitude. When it’s 7:30 pm and a pet owner is scraping the bottom of an empty bag to feed Fido, the inherent convenience of a 24/7/365 online store that owns the search engine rankings for all prescription food searches becomes the path of least resistance to ensuring that the pet doesn’t starve too badly in the coming days. I would posit that in an overwhelming number of cases, it is the refill order where Chewy has usurped control of your client’s food purchases.
Defending your in-house pharmacy starts with parasiticides
Now, I could give you advice on how to stem the tide and attempt to reverse course on your in-house food sales. It would require a fair bit of work, but for what? Margins on food are paltry. You only have so much time and resources to devote to an initiative like this. Instead, if it isn’t already too late, I’m going to advocate that you focus your attention on the next battlefront Chewy is going after: flea, tick, and heartworm meds. Yes, the faxes and badgering phone calls are irritating, but ignore Chewy. I want you to start proactively reminding for parasiticide refills. Are FTH meds set up to trigger reminders in Cornerstone or AVImark? Do that tonight. Are you calling clients when they should be running out of Heartgard? Rally reception and start that this week. You can absolutely drive compliance by not leaving it to chance. The margins on most FTH meds are worth trying to preserve. The dollars generated by a sale that, for all intents and purposes, is part of your wellness protocol is just gravy on top of the annual visit.
Until the individual practice has a tool to intelligently remind pet owners to repurchase prescription food when the bag should be empty or the last can have been opened (I’m looking at you, VetSource and Covetrus/VFC), Chewy is going to continue making inroads in that segment. However, you already have access to tools and workflows to protect your parasiticide sales. Use them and stop worrying about the boogeyman. He’s only scary if you let yourself be scared.
How a veterinary practice consultant could help…
By now, your reception team is assuredly frustrated by the onslaught of faxes and badgering phone calls coming from Chewy’s army of prescription approval reps. To stand up a strong defense of your in-house pharmacy, a coordinated marketing and analytics strategy poses the best first step. Such an initiative may include:
- Building a comprehensive parasiticide refill communications plan to drive continued compliance
- Authoring talking points for client care representatives to use when trying to divert refill requests from third-party online pharmacies
Our team of consultants is well-equipped to help with exactly these types of projects at your request. To learn more about how Gretel’s team could help drive pharmacy compliance, click here.