Pharmacy Spotlight: Don Summerfield of Medly Pharmacy

What are consumers looking for from homeopathy today? As manufacturers, how can we best serve them? An excellent way to get a pulse on our consumers is to look to those who engage closely with them every day—homeopathic pharmacies and other natural retailers.

In the second installment of our Pharmacy Spotlight Series, AAHP interviewed Don Summerfield, VP of Integrative Medicine at Medly Pharmacy (formerly Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy), a national retail pharmacy with a robust e-commerce platform and 60 brick-and-mortar stores across the western U.S. During our conversation Summerfield covered a myriad of topics ranging from the history of the business, the future of homeopathy, Medly’s passion for serving customers, consumer behaviors, and more.

AAHP: Tell us about yourself

DS: I co-founded Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy 20 years ago out of Boulder. Last year Pharmaca was acquired by a Brooklyn based company called Medly Pharmacy, so we’re in transition. Before the acquisition, Pharmaca had 28 locations across the western U.S. and an e-commerce site. We specialize in integrative medicine as a retail chain pharmacy. We saw an opportunity to innovate the retail pharmacy space, which hadn’t really been innovated for quite some time, multiple decades. We saw an opportunity to incorporate more modalities of medicine, primarily natural medicine like homeopathy, dietary supplements, and natural products like healthy snack foods and healthier skin care to the retail pharmacy consumer. We also wanted to ensure that we had qualified team members to help serve customers, so we hired naturopathic doctors, herbalists, estheticians, homeopaths, etc., to service customers so they get the best information on how to address their health conditions.

AAHP: What are your customers looking for from homeopathy today? What types of products are consumers interested in?

DS: I would say that our customers look for transparency in the products we offer. That’s something we do spend a lot of time in—our product review process, looking for brands that invest in clean, safe, effective, products that are transparent in terms of where they source their raw materials, [and] how products are put together. This allows our customers to have the most amount of information they can derive from packaging, labeling, vendors, [and] brand websites so they can make an informed purchasing decision. That more than anything is one of the most important product attributes we look for when sourcing new brands.

AAHP: As a retailer/pharmacy, what would you like to see offered (e.g., product types, package/size alternatives, different dosage forms)?

DS: Packaging. Customers are looking for innovation packaging. When I look at shoppers’ behaviors, they prefer to purchase products that are packaged in a way that provides a lot of information. Typically, products that are packed in boxes where the brand can tell more of their story on the box—that type of packaging lends itself to the brand putting third-party certifications, which supports transparency. Those types of products tend to sell better than brands that don’t use that type of packaging. Customers also tend to like more glass packaging, and types of packaging that can be more easily recycled.

AAHP: What do you think consumers would like to see offered?

DS: They are looking for more innovative delivery systems. Recently, there’s been an interest in liposomal delivery systems for dietary supplements. Basically, that means taking vitamins or groups of vitamins and surrounding them in lipid molecule so that a water-soluble product, a vitamin, is turned into fat-soluble vitamin. There’s science that says it’s more easily absorbed and available to customers. There’s interest from customers in these new innovative delivery systems to help get more of the vitamin/mineral ingredient into the body.

AAHP: You have dozens of brick-and-mortar stores as well as a robust e-commerce platform. Have you noticed any trends in consumer behavior in-person vs. online?

DS: There is a difference. We’re coming out of an almost three-year pandemic, and we’ve seen some pretty dramatic consumer changes. More consumers are shopping online. Now, in 2022, customers are also heading back into brick-and-mortar stores. We have noticed that customers who shop both retail and e-commerce tend to be a more valuable shopper for us. They tend to stick more with our brand than if they were only [shopping] retail or e-commerce as separate channels.

Customers online ask more specific questions around product ingredients. That happens when they're not in the store with a practitioner where they can ask questions about specific ingredients and where they’re derived from. There’s more technical transparency from our online shopper. Online shoppers also tend to want larger sizes when purchasing. That’s the nature of an online shopper—they’re looking for value in both pricing and in size.

It’s also worth noting that we have many unique brands that are only available in our pharmacy setting. We have a lot of practitioner brands and, because we have a lot of practitioners on staff, we’re able to partner with these practitioner brands to provide us with a certain level of exclusive products that are not available to others in the dietary supplement space.

AAHP: Can you forecast any trends for the coming years? 

DS: I think one of the biggest trends is that customers are now looking at immune support as an actual health condition. Even though we’ve carried products in the past, customers take them or buy them only when they feel like they’re coming down with a cold or respiratory issue. Coming out of pandemic, customers are far more aware of supporting their immune system. We’re seeing a shift in terms of types of products that customers are now purchasing for immune support. We didn’t see anywhere near the level of customer interest prior to the pandemic. So, there are classes of products—zinc, quercetin, vitamin D, vitamin C—that customers are now purchasing for daily use throughout the year and not just as an annual product. Now that there are more global viruses, customers are not just looking at particular supplements for cold and flu season, but want to take these products every day of their everyday life.

AAHP: How can manufacturers support retailers and pharmacy owners like yourself?

DS: Understanding consumer trends and developing products for those trends is important. For example, the large aging population has specific health issues around brain function, eyesight, joint care, digestion, and skin care. Manufacturers offering cutting edge products help retailers like us provide innovative products, transparency with materials, raw materials, and sourcing. Also, we appreciate manufacturers who do a better job on supply chain issues. There have been some issues, but that has gotten better.

AAHP: What does the future of homeopathy in the U.S. look like?

DS: Homeopathy has a bright future. It is a product category that has garnered a huge amount of customer interest, particularly in the last couple of years. The fact that it’s safe, effective, and affordable means that a much broader segment of the consumer base can utilize homeopathic medicine in the over-the-counter medicine category to treat the needs of their family, kids, and themselves. There’s a huge opportunity there—primarily because of the safety profile. I think homeopathic medicine has a role to play in providing support for everyday conditions like sleep, stress, cold and cough, sore throat, etc. There’s a lot of opportunity.

AAHP: Is there anything else we should talk about?

DS: Customers are looking for homeopathy to treat common conditions like first aid issues, pain, indigestion, allergies, cold, cough, flu, sore throat, and more. Having homeopathic manufacturers provide products in those categories for adults, children, specific gender demographics if needed would be beneficial for attracting more customers to use homeopathic medicine in traditional over-the-counter categories. When Boiron repackaged a lot of their traditional over-the-counter items away from names rooted in Latin or French, those products sold much better with more understandable names for what they’re used for. For example, “Sedalia” jumped in sales after it was renamed “SleepCalm.” Using a name specific to the condition customers are looking for attracted far more interest from shoppers. It’s really beneficial for the customer too.