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Pharma chains join the retail revolution
Gargi Gupta in New Delhi
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January 30, 2007
Frank Ross Limited, an Emami group which runs a chain of pharmacies in Kolkata, is in expansion mode. Harsh Vardhan Agarwal, director, Emami Limited, says he plans to have 100 stores in the next three years.

The company has already opened about 10 stores in Kolkata over the past year-and-a-half and plans to roll out stores in cities in the east and northeast.

Frank Ross is not the only chain of pharmacies that is expanding. Apollo Pharmacies, the biggest player with a pan-India presence, has been similarly aggressive.

There are 450 Apollo Pharmacies at present, 100 of which have been added in the past one year and 50 more will be added before the end of the financial year, says Shobana Kameneni, managing director, Apollo Pharmacy.

"We've been working with KSA Technopak and have now built a system whereby we can open a store a day." Not just the metros, in the south Apollo has gone down to district-headquarter level and is piggy-backing Godrej Adhar and ITC's e-choupal to penetrate the rural hinterland.

Morepen Laboratories also entered the retail space in 2000, when it acquired Lifespring, the Delhi-based health and beauty chain. But seven years on, "internal limitations" have put a cap on the number of stores to three.

But now the company is reviving its expansion plans, says Sushil Suri, managing director. "We'll be opening eight stores in 2007, going up to 80 in the next four years."

Not just companies in the pharma or healthcare sectors, Subhiksha, the chain of discount stores, too has a chain of pharmacies. Eighty five per cent of Subhiksha stores have a pharmacy besides some stand-alone ones near hospitals.

With Subhiksha's managing director, R Subramanian, planning to increase his store-count from the present 550 to nearly 1,000 by December 2007, Subhiksha could well overtake Apollo to become the biggest chain of pharmacy stores.

The other large player is Medicine Shoppe with 120 stores in west and middle India. "We'll be opening 120 more stores in the next year," reports Ranjeeta Vinal, vice-president, marketing. The company will now be launching a low-income format in Umergaon, Vashi, and areas adjoining Mumbai which, besides a pharmacy, has a doctor's clinic, and also provides services like diagnostic, specialised tests like optometry, and so on.

Among other players, there's Guardian Lifecare, which since August 2003 has built up a network of 65 pharmacies mostly in the NCR.

"These will increase to 250 by March 2008," says Ashutosh Garg, chairman and managing director, and in another seven years touch 3,500. Then there are regional players like Lifeken in Bangalore, Chennai; Aushahdi in Andhra Pradesh; CRS Health in Delhi, NCR, Pune and Chennai; and 98.4 Global Healthcare, again in Delhi and NCR.

Clearly, the Rs 27,000 crore (Rs 270 billion) pharma retail market, dominated by the around 7,00,000 mom-and-pop pharma stores all over the country, is coming under the organised retail revolution.

At present, the organised chains account for only 2 per cent of the business, but it is growing by 30-40 per cent. These not only offer medicines, and surgical and hospital consumables, but also food items, cosmetics and general merchandise- all in air-conditioned surroundings, with value-adds like round-the-clock operations, door delivery, credit-card acceptance, an insurance cover or even the chance to win a trip to Egypt!

But there are problems, primarily because of the regulations over drug pricing and the unions of drug distributors and retailers.

Says Suri, "The trade is very MRP driven and margins are too tight." Margins, in the case of Lifespring, come from the other higher-value items like perfumes.

Those who have large operations like Apollo and Subhiksha have the sales volumes to negotiate with manufacturers. Subhiksha, for example, offers a 10 per cent discount on medicines.

"Pricing regulation should be a worry for those who would like to sell at higher prices. For somebody like us, who is basically passing on discounts to customers, it is not a worry," says Subramanian.

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