Sourcing Globally from the Comfort of Home: Medicare Pharmacy & ECRM Connect  10/16/2020

Michele Deeves, Retail & Marketing Lead for Randburg, South Africa-based Medicare Pharmacy Group, has recently discovered several innovative products in the categories of baby and infant, confectionery and sexual wellness from suppliers around the world, products that will soon be on the shelves in her stores. And she accomplished this all without having to leave her home office, thanks to ECRM Connect.

An ECRM veteran, Deeves has been participating in sessions since ECRM launched its Euro Beauty Program about dozen years ago. But with travel restrictions currently still in place, she continues to meet with these suppliers at ECRM’s North American and European virtual sessions.

Indeed, Deeves and her team have participated in nine sessions this year: four in-person just before the pandemic hit, then six virtual sessions, three of which were U.S.-based, as well as one Efficient Supplier Introduction. And she has several more scheduled (Click here for the full listing of ECRM’s category-specific Virtual Sessions and Efficient Supplier Introductions).

In the most recent episode of The ECRM Podcast, ECRM VP of Content Joseph Tarnowski spoke with Deeves about how virtual has enabled her to effectively continue sourcing new products without any in-person opportunities available due to the pandemic.

Medicare Pharmacy operates almost 50 community-focused pharmacy locations throughout South Africa, and Deeves heads up buying for all front-of-store categories, as well as the retailer’s marketing efforts. When the pandemic first hit South Africa, they experienced the same panic-buying from consumers as all retailers have, with customers stocking up on hand sanitizer, vitamins, soap and masks (though, interestingly, not toilet paper, according to Deeves), spiking their March sales 100 percent over the same period the previous year. 


However, sales of products in other categories dropped to zero. This wasn’t because of reduced demand, however, but rather due to restrictions the South African government placed on sales of any non-essential items. “You weren’t allowed to buy any beauty products, fashion products, or basically any categories that people tend to spend time browsing,” says Deeves. “Stores were only allowed to sell true essential items. The beauty category in pharmacy is such a big part of the business, but because of this, sales went from a really good number to zero during the first six weeks of the pandemic.”

Once the restrictions were lifted, as the hair and beauty salons were still closed, sales of home beauty treatments like hair color, and manicure and pedicure kits began to spike, and now sales in those categories have finally normalized. In addition to the shift in categories consumers were shopping, Deeves also noticed a shift in where they were shopping, as well. They tended to avoid traveling to the chain’s larger stores in strip malls in favor of the smaller, more locally-based pharmacies. 

The COVID Department
One result of the pandemic has been the launch of a new COVID department in the Medicare Pharmacy stores. The department is merchandised with all the COVID-related categories together on a gondola near the front of the store, so shoppers can get their essential items quickly and easily without having to walk through the aisles.

“The COVID department has grown into a huge business, at least 15 percent to 20 percent of our total sales,” says Deeves. “But in South Africa there is also a limit to how much profit you are allowed to make on those products, so our profit has shifted.”

With all of these previous restrictions on shoppers, and the fluctuations in demand, sourcing products has not been easy for Deeves and her team. “It’s been a little bit erratic; you’d go and buy a bunch of products and then suddenly demand slows down in that category,” she says. “In the beginning we just bought anything and everything we could find just to get the essential items into our stores. We have a central buying group and then the stores have the ability to buy for themselves as well.”

This resulted in the stores having an array of products, spanning several different brands and price points. “We had restrictions on imports during the initial weeks of the pandemic, which led to an increase of locally-sourced products,” says Deeves. “We also wanted to help support local manufacturers, particularly those who made masks, which all people in the country are required to wear. They’ve become more of a fashion accessory in this market, with consumers buying different masks to match their outfits. Once things calmed down a bit, we developed a more defined and consistent range of approximately 100 COVID-related products, and within that range is a mix of entry-level prices, mid-level prices and premium products.”

Sourcing Globally
Now that the restrictions are lifted and demand for products normalizing, Deeves has been tapping into the power of virtual to find suppliers from around the world to differentiate their offerings, especially with Christmas coming. “Since we had to do a lot of sourcing locally, there’s nothing fantastic in terms of innovation,” she says. “We’ve had to expand our ranges with the national brands, which is a bit boring, because people need a bit of a pick me up this time of year when you are going into the festive season.”

To find some of this innovation, Deeves’ and her team participated in several of ECRM’s Virtual Sessions during the summer. The first was ECRM’s European Dry Food, Confectionery, Organic/Bio & Free-From Program, which was originally slated to be held in-person this past March in Rome, but was rescheduled as a virtual session in July. There her team found some confectionery products they are looking forward to merchandising for the holidays. 

Additionally, at ECRM’s U.S.-based Personal Care Virtual Session, she was able to find new products that address a huge consumer trend in South Africa: sexual wellness. And from the Baby & Infant Virtual Session, they will be bringing in some organic and vegan products. “We found some great products that we wouldn’t have been able to discover if we hadn’t done the sessions,” says Deeves.

The Efficiency of Virtual
While Deeves is a big fan of in-person meetings, and has participated in dozens of ECRM’s in-person sessions over the years, she admits that she wouldn’t have been able to discover so many products if it hadn’t been for the virtual sessions, as traveling to Europe or the Unites States from South Africa often requires a large time commitment, and her and her team cannot be away that much from the office. 

Virtual changes that. Since ECRM Virtual sessions typically begin at noon Eastern Standard Time or Central European Time (depending on whether it’s a North American of European session), this allows buyers to accomplish their daily tasks prior the start of meetings. “By the time the sessions start I’ve already done a full day of work so there is no time away from my desk, and then after a week I’m finished,” she says. “You are not losing hours in front of your computer, and I’m sure that any boss loves that.”

Because of this, she doesn’t have to dig out from hundreds of emails and catch up on work before beginning her follow ups with suppliers, so she is able to get the ball rolling more quickly with suppliers. “Within the next week everybody follows up and you can quickly decide on who you are going to work with,” she says. “But if you have been away for abut ten days, you have to catch up on your real job and go back to your followups later.”

Market Insights
Since she can’t travel, Deeves also uses these virtual sessions to learn about trends in the different countries. Typically, during an in-person trip to another country she will schedule some store visits at retailers in various cities. Now, get this information from suppliers she meets with virtually on ECRM Connect.  

Virtual has also been helpful for educating her junior buyers. “I’ve been able to put all of my buyers and even my junior people – who I never would have sent overseas – into the meetings to teach them how to engage with suppliers,” says Deeves. “For in-person sessions you can only bring two people, and so the more junior people can’t make it.”

When it comes to her virtual meetings with suppliers, she prefers information mixed with some showmanship and authenticity. “There was one supplier that did something really interesting,” says Deeves. “One person was going through a slide deck while another was demonstrating the product like a show-and-tell, so it was kind of animated like it would be in person. They didn’t just sit there and talk to the computer and you were able to see their personalities come through.”

This is a key point she feels suppliers should understand going into virtual meetings: just be yourself. “Everyone behaves differently on a virtual presentation, and sometimes people may get nervous in front of the screen, or they are looking at themselves all the time,” says Deeves. “Sometimes people need a little education on just being yourself. If you are a person who talks with your hands, do that. Let your personality come through.”

While she does miss the energy of ECRM’s in-person sessions, Deeves feels that the ECRM Connect platform delivers an experience that’s pretty close. “The platform is absolutely amazing,” she says. “You really do feel like you are in the room with someone. And I love the fact that you have all of these staff in the background monitoring the meetings to ensure that everything is going well. If I think of all of the Zoom meetings and all the calls I’ve had on other virtual platforms, you have perfected it.”


John Van der Valk

ECRM Europe

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