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'If you don't invest in your business and adapt, your business is going to die'

Eoin McCormack of CarePlus says pharmacies need a high-tech revolution


Forward thinking: Eoin McCormack, managing director of Navi Retail.  Photo: Shawn Pogatchnik

Forward thinking: Eoin McCormack, managing director of Navi Retail. Photo: Shawn Pogatchnik

Forward thinking: Eoin McCormack, managing director of Navi Retail. Photo: Shawn Pogatchnik

THE pharmacy of the future has arrived and it's not in downtown Kyoto. It's Conaty's CarePlus in Dunboyne.

"If you wanted to build a pharmacy to trade in a post-pandemic world, this is what you'd build," Eoin McCormack says as he shows off the newest addition to the 60-strong CarePlus chain.

McCormack is a retail veteran who's taken over as managing director of Navi Retail and its rapidly expanding CarePlus brand.

Arriving at the Co Meath shop, customers are greeted by a pharmacist at a welcome counter, where they're advised to have their temperature taken by facial scan.

Inside, the wide-open layout looks almost nothing like a traditional pharmacy.

There's little merchandise on display, and no shelves on the shop floor. The interior is dominated by seven 55-inch video screens.

Touch one - after using the adjacent disinfectant gel - and the beaming CarePlus brand is replaced by virtual shelves in high definition.

The screens allow customers to browse stock, research products and read recommendations. The open plan leaves plenty of space to talk with the pharmacist, who is based firmly front of shop.

Once you've made your choices, the machine prints a ticket with a scannable code.

All the while, on another video screen above the payment counter, a green cartoon creature snores in its bed. Once you scan your code, the animated Bobbie the Robot awakens to 'take your order'. A real-life robotic sorting machine behind a glass wall whirrs into life to collect your goods, and slides it within seconds down a corkscrew delivery chute right in front of you.

While Bobbie the Robot may seem gimmicky, the automated order filling system is seriously slick. It has been designed over two years using CarePlus owner Navi's own touch-screen retail software paired with robotics by German mechanical engineering firm Gollmann.

CarePlus didn't develop the automation-heavy design with Covid-19 in mind, but eliminating clutter and minimising the need for humans to do routine hands-on tasks feels prescient.

The Dunboyne shop is first to relaunch as a so-called 'Gen 2' facility. McCormack says the next, in Loughrea, Co Galway, "won't have any shelves at all".

He expects CarePlus to double its outlets to 120 by the end of 2021. Its biggest franchisee owns five pharmacies.

The 'Gen 2' system has both novelty and commercial appeal, because it frees up so much floorspace. The design could prove particularly useful for pharmacies with a neglected floor above the shop, where the Gollmann stock dispenser could be positioned. The greatest surprise may be that this high-tech retailing is designed for small owner-operators.

CarePlus runs a franchise model, one of McCormack's areas of expertise from his two decades working in the Musgrave Group. There he oversaw absorption of Superquinn into the SuperValu network. In the past year he led Donnybrook Fair following Musgraves' purchase of that high-end Dublin food and grocery chain.

He's now taken the helm of retail operations at the Navi Group, including responsibility for the CarePlus brand, which was founded five years ago and is better known than the parent company.

As he shows off the Dunboyne fit-out, McCormack says the chain is reshaping how pharmacies operate. It's not cheap. Pharmacies joining CarePlus may invest €100,000 or more in transforming their premises.

But he says independents have little choice but to invest in new technology in an ultra-competitive sector.

"It takes a little bit of bravery but right now is a great time to invest," he says. "Retailers and corporates that are going to win right now are the ones looking at the crisis and saying: where is the resurgence coming from and how do we get ready?"

Navi expects to win converts to the new CarePlus design in part because 500 pharmacies nationwide are already clients of Navi's bulk purchasing platform, Axiom. It sources goods primarily from pharma wholesaler Uniphar and directly from manufacturers.

Despite being new to the pharmacy business, McCormack says he's managed rapid retail change for decades.

From Dundrum, Co Dublin, he trained as an accountant after school at St Benildus College in nearby Kilmacud. He joined Musgrave in 2000 after three-year spells as a graduate trainee at pallet maker Chep and as finance director of Colgate's Irish operations.

Initially he was commercial director of Musgrave's wholesale division, overseeing buying and marketing for cash-and-carry units and supplying corner shops.

His next task was to turn around Musgrave's food services unit supplying hotels, restaurants, pubs and caterers.

"In the space of four years, we took that business from being declining and loss-making to being very rapidly growing and profitable," he says.

"We didn't sufficiently understand what the customers really wanted. We had to simplify and improve efficiency throughout our offering. It involved lots of restructuring of the distribution network, and improvements in how we managed relationships with customers and understood what was important to them.

"Once we got that right, the business turned around quickly," he says, noting it went from losing €2m a year to a €4m gain in his final year.

Next came promotion to be marketing and trading director of Musgrave's 2011 acquisition Superquinn and, a year later, its managing director as Superquinn stores formally joined the SuperValu brand.

"Superquinn had lost its way a little bit. They had run out of cash so there was limited capital investment ability in the business. We were able to keep the fantastic quality associated with Superquinn, but we brought the power of Musgrave and the SuperValu brand behind that to deliver much better value. The consumer who had felt, 'Superquinn's stuff is great but I can't afford it' - we made it affordable."

Over the past year, as managing director of Donnybrook Fair, McCormack focused on harnessing the quality of its 100-chef food production unit in Clondalkin. As a result, he expects Donnybrook Fair-branded goods to appear soon in other Musgrave chains, including Frank & Honest coffee houses.

But when Navi Group CEO Simon Healy sounded him out for a move, McCormack says he saw "a chance not just to work with a brand, but to transform an industry".

He says automation and efficiency are essential "to make sure those community pharmacists have a successful and viable future. If you don't invest in your business and adapt, your business is going to die.

"Our job is to help independents survive - exactly what Musgrave did. All those independent food retailers, what are they now? They're SuperValus and Centras. They're still independent but part of a bigger team. They're successful because they work with a partner that's thinking about the future and working collaboratively.

"We want to do the same thing with CarePlus. All those community pharmacies out there - we don't want to put them out of business. We want to give them a solution that protects their future. But will they need to invest? Yeah, they will. Because in retail, you can never save your way to success."

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