At first glance, it appears that over the last 30 years the independently owned and operated pharmacy has disappeared, especially in the United State and Canada. Corporate chains, mass merchandisers and big-box stores have congested the industry by increasing their pharmaceutical presence, making it seem as though the doomsday bell has rung for independents.

But this isn’t the case, according to Langley, British Columbia-based Pharmasave. “Customers are looking for a place where they receive personalized customer service and meaningful healthcare programs,” the company says. “Pharmacists are looking for a place where they can practice their profession in an environment that respects and leverages the benefits they can bring to patients and consumers through exceptional care and programs.”

Founded in 1981 from the merger of Western Drug Mart and United Pharmacies, Pharmasave has become such a place. It is now the largest cooperative of independently owned and operated community pharmacies in Canada, with 435 stores in nine provinces. In 2010, it won five of 15 “Commitment to Care and Service Awards,” a national program created by Pharmacy Practice and Drugstore Canada, to recognize leaders in community retail pharmacy. It also won the title of best retailer to work for by BC Business Magazine in its 2010 annual survey and index of top businesses to work for.

Spectrum of Desires

The popularity of Pharmasave’s approach has been apparent since its start. Shortly after its formation, it was contacted by a group of independent pharmacies on the East Coast of Canada, also known as Atlantic Canada, wanting to join. In response, it took the unusual step of transplanting its managers from British Columbia to Halifax to establish its headquarters in Atlantic Canada.

From there the company grew from the “bookends” in, establishing groups in all other areas of Canada other than Quebec. It is now structured on both a national and regional basis to ensure all of its stores have a close and individual connection to leadership and management for their day-to-day operations.

Pharmasave’s organizational structure works well for pharmacists, as some want to practice their craft in a corporate structure where they don’t need to worry about anything other than pharmacy dispensing, whereas others want to be more involved in administration. Others still want to be masters of their own destinies, pursuing their profession in the context of professional environments they define, according to the company.

As a cooperative of independents, Pharmasave provides pharmacists the perfect marriage between allowing pharmacists to purse their own practices in an independent environment while having the benefit of leverage of size and economies of scale from banding together with many likeminded people.

From a customer perspective, Pharmasave’s structure offers the benefit of owners who have a vested interest in the success of their store and focus on customer relationships, service, and building a merchandising strategy based on what their individual communities need. A store on the small island of Salt Spring, for example, maintains a product complement focused on a transient vacation-oriented population between the months of April and October, while during the off-season it’s more attuned to the needs of the retired population that lives on the island year round.

In contrast, a store one hour away from the island in Vancouver bases its merchandising on a more stable residential and metropolitan population. On the other side of the country in Nova Scotia, which is directly north of New York state, Pharmasave locations are tailored to the unique needs of Canada’s East Coast rural population.