Evolving a brand in the pursuit of Wellness

Ken Martindale, Rite Aid COO

Drug stores, especially chain drug stores, brand themselves differently. But once customers step through the doors, they tend to only see slight variations of the same thing: the same shelves, too tall for mere humans to reach the top without a ladder; the same product categories every other drug store carries; the same pharmacy counter in the back of the store; and the same cash registers in the front. Some stores have carpets, others have tile floors.

But increasingly, it’s no longer enough for a retail pharmacy chain to be “the red one” or “the blue one.” Today, pharmacy retailers are looking for new ways to distinguish and differentiate themselves from the rest, with the goal of branding customers to their stores. Loyalty programs have become more than discount programs; they aim to form more personalized relationships with 
the shopper. 

For Rite Aid and the company’s evolving journey to reposition its brand and turn around its business, this has meant wrapping everything it does around the central theme of wellness. “It’s not just a matter of putting pills in a bottle or putting product on a shelf,” Rite Aid COO Ken Martindale told Drug Store News. “Now it’s about helping our patients and our customers in their pursuit of wellness.”

The company’s “wellness empowerment” focus has informed just about every one of Rite Aid’s initiatives over the past couple of years, from its wellness+ loyalty card, to its Wellness stores and the Wellness Ambassadors who work in them. And Martindale has had a hand in all of it.

“Innovation hadn’t been one of our hallmarks,” Martindale said. “We grew quickly through acquisition, assimilating businesses. It’s what our team got used to doing, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on innovation. For us to compete in the future, we need to be innovative; we need to be creative; we need to get outside the box — and that would apply very nicely to what we’re doing both with our Wellness store and wellness+ program.”

That new spirit of innovation is on display at the company’s newest iteration of its Wellness store concept in Lemoyne, Pa. Martindale walked DSN through the new store in early October at a special grand reopening event. The store updates the whole look of the Wellness concept, featuring a softer layout designed to make it easy for customers to find what they’re looking for, with new signage and decor that includes ceiling rings clearly designating each section; lighting fixtures and brand headers across select departments like beauty; and a relaxing, warm color palette with wood tones and 
softer lighting. 

Importantly, the store advances Rite Aid’s goal to put pharmacy on a stage and make it the star of the show, with lower sight lines that make the pharmacy pop the moment a customer enters the store. Offset wooden flooring creates a bee-line for pharmacy, which features a giant, dew-drenched leaf mural that communicates a less sterile, medicinal role for pharmacy, recasting it as a destination for wellness and prevention versus “sick care.”

The remodeled Lemoyne location is also a reflection of the journey Rite Aid has undergone as a company. The Wellness stores are an evolving concept that is elevated a little at a time, taking on a bit more life with each iteration. As the new stores have generated positive results and its loyalty card program has taken hold, Rite Aid has been able to increase its investment in Wellness stores. Martindale said the company intends to incorporate elements of this “genuine wellness” design in upcoming store remodels and relocations, and expects to have a total of nearly 800 Wellness stores by the end of its fiscal year on March 2, 2013.

And it’s not just the stores that have had a makeover. In an effort to get its store teams even more engaged, the company reevaluated its somewhat dated associate uniforms. This fall, the chain unveiled its new “team colors” — khaki trousers for men, khaki skirt or pants for women and a navy blue top. Associates are able to choose what they want — as long as it fits that color scheme.

Another area in which Rite Aid has shown innovation — and in which it is significantly investing in order to evolve its brand and differentiate the shopping experience in its stores — is its Wellness Ambassadors. A new role in the store, these specially trained staff, who walk the aisles wielding iPads with access to information about OTC products and supplements, have the job of actively engaging customers in the store, and of serving as a “bridge” between the front end and the company’s pharmacists. Martindale compares the new role to that of a free safety in football; these associates’ job is to “roam the backfield,” and to proactively engage with Rite Aid customers throughout the store. 

Currently, Rite Aid has trained more than 800 of its associates to serve in this new role. About three-quarters of its Wellness Ambassadors were existing Rite Aid associates who demonstrated a special passion for wellness and for interaction with customers, and “they are shaping the role everyday” under the direction of Special Projects Manager Eric Hauser, a Rite Aid pharmacist who oversees the program for the company. Importantly, the Wellness Ambassadors also are tied into their communities, so the role is carried beyond the store. Martindale shared examples of Wellness Ambassadors who set up tables at the local Friday night high school football games, and who make visits to assisted living centers and gyms to raise awareness about flu shots and where to get them. “I think what makes them successful is a real passion for what they’re doing, and an enjoyment of getting out and engaging with the public,” Martindale said. “Because that’s really what we charge them to do — their job is to engage with every customer who comes through the door.”

The third critical leg of Rite Aid’s efforts to rebrand itself is, of course, the company’s wellness+ loyalty card program. Now in its third year, with more than 800 million transactions to speak of, the program is producing volumes of important data about its customers, and Rite Aid is using that data to inform its business across the company.

It is also a strong example of the amount of innovation that has gone into the reinvention of the Rite Aid brand. Rite Aid’s wellness+ was the first loyalty card of its kind to create a rewards program that provides members with free health and wellness benefits, as well as shopping discounts and special prices. “It also was designed from the pharmacy outward to the store,” Martindale said. “The structure resembles travel industry programs, and we put together what we consider the most compelling loyalty program in our industry.”

Importantly, the card solved a critical issue for the company — namely, how to create a vehicle that would enable it to grow script count in some stores and increase front-end sales in other stores. Again, over the years Rite Aid had become a product of its many acquisitions; it was a chain of many different types of stores that the company had done its best over the years to assimilate. The result was that customers shopped its various stores differently. 

While the program is designed so that a customer earns one point for each dollar spent on most items throughout the store, the fastest way for customers to rack up points through wellness+ and advance to silver or gold status is to fill prescriptions at Rite Aid, earning 25 points per script where allowed by law. Rather than a straight discount-based card, the program also offers members certain rewards, including magazine subscriptions, gym memberships and free health screenings. Like the Wellness stores, wellness+ has evolved. In January, Rite Aid introduced Load2Card, the drug store industry’s first coupon management tool that allowed wellness+ members to save, manage and redeem Rite Aid and manufacturer coupons via their wellness+ card. And in September, the company introduced a new Load2Card function that allows customers to have +UPs— special rewards that can be used like cash toward future purposes and that are earned when customers buy certain items — loaded automatically to their cards, 
eliminating paper. 

Another strong example of how the program has evolved was wellness+ for Diabetes, which Rite Aid introduced in 2011. The plan is to roll out new subsegments of the program that target other key disease states.

In the end, all of it, every aspect of Rite Aid’s efforts to rebuild and differentiate its brand is an evolution. And from its humblest beginnings, each iteration builds on the last. So far, so good. “We’re happy with the results, and we’re happy with the evolution of the stores because they’re getting better all the time,” Martindale said. “And, we are going to 
keep pushing.”

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