Big interview: Lloydspharmacy IT director Menno Rientjes

The John Lewis Retail Report 2014 'How We Shop, Live & Look' was published earlier this month, revealing how new patterns in consumer behaviour are impacting retailers and how mobile technology has reinvented the way companies do business.

According to the report, "the ability to mix and match purchase channels and delivery options is now the norm" for retailers looking to provide the ultimate customer experience, and it is a trend seemingly high on the agenda of health & wellbeing retailer Lloydspharmacy, in the UK.

The high street pharmacy group has announced a number of new initiatives this year, resulting in its sales channels merging and the joining up of the customer purchase journey. One recent addition to the retailer's list of services is click & collect, which allows its growing online shopper base to order online and pick-up in a store.

A trial period in south-east England has seen click & collect orders grow to represent one-fifth of all online orders, prompting the service to be introduced nationwide in the coming months.

Menno Rientjes, IT director at Lloydspharmacy's parent company Celesio UK, argues that the service is a natural fit for his business, due to the range of products it offers customers; some everyday health products to many more prescriptions that require further conversations in a store.

"The online website offers standard, over-the-counter retail products, but with customers coming to the store we can offer more services than just picking up a bottle of shampoo, for example," he told Essential Retail.

"We are very happy with the introduction of click & collect, it works well and we have plans to expand this offer nationwide, which will involve working closely with our regional teams. There is some training to be done and our delivery model needs to be ready, but we are expecting to roll it out in the next period."

Some 197 Lloydspharmacy stores currently offer the service but by the end of November it will be available to customers in the east and the south-west of England, bringing the total number of UK stores offering the collection facility to 600 out of 1,600.

The merging of channels, exemplified by the new collection points, is not a new strategy for the high street retailer. Having acquired Betterlife, a direct mail company selling independent living items, in 2010, the business has worked at displaying some of the mobility-aid products in its high street outlets.

Rientjes acknowledges that the high street and the internet are not necessarily the most appropriate destinations for selling mobile scooters, stair-lifts and medical chairs, as they represent important life decisions. With that in mind, this summer saw Celesio UK open its first standalone Betterlife store, in New Wortley near Leeds, which focuses on exhibiting and demonstrating items in real-life situations.

Lloydspharmacy opened a standalone store for its Betterlife brand, earlier this year

"Often you get to the stage of life where you need to consider products such as lifts, chairs or mobile scooters - it's an emotional decision that can sometimes need more personal interaction and support," said the IT director.

"We think the new format will help the customer understand how the products work in real-life situations, for example how easy it is to get a chair in the car or how a scooter behaves on different surfaces.

"It will complement the eCommerce offering as there are some products that people prefer to buy in-store. Sometimes you need to feel and see a product, especially when you are going through a phase where your life is changing considerably – so I would not rule out seeing more of these stores."

All retailers talk of a duty of care to their customers, but for a business like Lloydspharmacy – which supplies products to help manage diseases and general healthcare – there is a clearer definition of what that statement actually means.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently hinted at how technology could play a greater role in healthcare, for example online bookings for doctors' appointments and electronic prescriptions, and there may be ways that high street players can show innovation and take a lead in this area.

Very soon, Lloydspharmacy will start selling some of the new range of wearable technology that has been specifically designed for monitoring consumer health, while a new mobile app to help patients keep track of their medicine intake is also under development – which can work as a health guide but also as a marketing tool to encourage repeat customer visits.

Commenting on the mobile app, Rientjes said: "We are a special industry. It's about marketing but we also have a responsibility for someone's health, so if people are not taking medicines correctly we would like to have a discussion with that person."

Many of the innovative projects at Lloydspharmacy have come in the last 18 months, which coincides with Cormac Tobin's arrival and tenure as managing director of the parent company. Rientjes, who has worked for Celesio since 2010, has been impressed with the impact Tobin has had on the business and is confident IT infrastructure work and eCommerce development are getting their fair share of support from the boardroom.

Significant investment is being put in the resilience of the business's back-end systems, primarily with the help of HP, as the retailer moves evermore towards true multichannel retailing. With the business also required to manage secure, heavily coded and large data files for customer prescriptions, it is crucial that continual tech maintenance and monitoring is going on behind the scenes.

Customer-facing in-store improvements are in the pipeline, too, including an update of EPoS systems, which has seen video technology used at the point of interaction. One thing, however, that would evidently make Rientjes' life easier is more flexible vendor partnerships.

He remarked: "We pay them to deliver services. I need IT vendors that are open to collaboration between one another and with us, as we look at achieving end-to-end integration."

In terms of the figures, Lloydspharmacy performed in line with expectations in the first half of 2014, contributing to an overall group rise in revenue. Highlighting the business's fast-growing digital capability, saw a 23% year-on-year rise in visitors and a 29% upturn in sales.

Visitor numbers to are up 70% compared to 2011, while sales for Betterlife are up by more than 50% on last year.

"You want to be where your customer is and fit into their lifestyles, and today that is online and on mobile, but they can also come into our stores and we can interact with them there," explained Rientjes.

"Our business leadership realises that if the website is down we are losing sales. Cormac realises that without IT technology there is basically no business, but investment in our stores and people is also there. For me, I don't have to fight for the support, which is a great place to be."

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