There’s a global race right now to become the global drug chain leader. It brings three very different things together: the board game Risk, an iceberg and a Bob Dylan song. I’ll explain.
Risk is a global board game of diplomacy and conquest. Players form alliances with the ultimate goal of occupying territory. “Moves” are made by rolling the dice not unlike M&A efforts. Icebergs have huge portions hidden from view, and recent Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wrote lyrics including “the answer my friends is blowing in the wind.” Drug chain dominance is similar to Risk, but some activity is hidden with large Rx/OTC wholesalers like McKesson having a huge impact. Meanwhile, the disruptive digital world of Amazon, Google and Alibaba threatens to redefine everything. They are the virtual wind; board games are historical artifacts.
U.S. OTC brand owners are impacted by all of it. The Risk analogy is seen with the emergence of WBA and Walgreen’s new business approach. Margins, permanent 3-for-2 promotions and private label have all arrived. Adding WBA’s control of AmerisourceBergen, a vertically integrated retailer with visibility to wholesale OTC and Rx prices exists. So, on the viewable side of the iceberg, what’s next for Retail? Will CVS strive to become more global or even become a part of something else? Will Fred’s become an attractive U.S. retail entry for a global player from either side of the iceberg? The private equity money in Fred’s undoubtedly views that as a possible future exit.
There are a few global drug chain players chasing limited M&A opportunities. Legal restrictions prohibit the traditional U.S. drug chain format by limiting pharmacy ownership. Markets like Australia, Germany, Spain and France require a pharmacist to own and operate a limited number of units. Purchasing coops like the Australian Banner System exist but full control a-la Walgreen’s or CVS is not allowed. In addition to WBA, the Watson Group, based in Hong Kong with local and Singapore Sovereign Fund ownership, boasts 25,000 stores in 25 countries ranging from the Asia/Pacific region to Western Europe. Watson’s owns the leading Dutch Chain Kruidvat, the UK’s #2 chain Super Drug and 40% of Germany’s Rossmans. Are they a player or possibly a seller?
The picture becomes even murkier when the below-the-surface drug wholesalers are included. McKesson, with its 2014 acquisition of 75% of Celisio, entered 13 European markets mostly on the wholesale side but also as a retailer with 1,800 Lloyds retail shops in the UK and significant footprints in Ireland, Belgium, Italy and Norway. In Canada, McKesson is both a wholesaler and retailer.
Enter Amazon, Google and Alibaba. The self-medication trend makes reliable online content even more critical. Digital shopping has accompanied the content revolution. Together, they are potential game-changers. It’s notable that Walgreen’s recently shut down Drugstore.com; we know what they don’t want to do but their future strategy is still unclear. Meanwhile, Amazon caused many to shudder by investigating an Rx launch. For those in the U.S. VMS business, they already are a significant market player. In China Alibaba’s TMall and Taobao (think of a combined Amazon and E-Bay) already drive domestic consumer healthcare sales.
So, while global Risk is being played above and below the iceberg waterline, beware of the digital players as well. The answer for U.S. OTC brand owners could be blowing in the wind.
Ed Rowland, is a Drug Store News contributing editor covering global issues. As the principal of Rowland Global, he believes in the promise of global business and supports companies in their strategy, tactics and execution of international growth initiatives.