ONLINE STORES CAN BE GOOD FOR BUSINESS, BUT MANY VETERINARIANS DON’T KNOW IT
Most horse owners purchase over-the-counter products – as well as many prescription medications for their horses – from outlets other than their veterinarian, data indicates. However, veterinarians have an option that could help them regain that lost business: selling their medications and over-the-counter products online.
Vets First Choice was founded in 2010 by a small group of investors and software engineers, who had experience working with veterinarians and wanted to leverage new technological developments to help the veterinary industry. It began providing e-commerce services for practices before expanding to digital prescription management.
Today, the company offers practice patient analytics “with the goal of helping, in a broader way, [to] track, monitor, and manage patient population health,” says Susan Tuller, director of equine at Vets First Choice. Horse owners can purchase products directly through their veterinarian’s website, with little trouble on the part of the veterinarian.
Benefits for the equine vet
Along with marketing and client communication services, Vets First Choice offers options that specifically benefit equine veterinarians. For example, since equine practitioners are so often away from their office, the Vets First Choice mobile app allows them to create, renew, and approve prescriptions from their phone, says Tuller. “They can access the complete range of products online while at the barn and take care of their clients’ needs on the spot.”
Additionally, she notes that Vets First Choice has established direct partnerships with manufacturers. In many cases, this allows veterinarians to offer manufacturer-sponsored instant rebates to customers who purchase directly through the veterinarian’s website.
Veterinarians often work with trainers and purchasing agents who coordinate horse owners’ needs. Vets First Choice’s trainer program allows them to continue this relationship while directing customer purchases through the veterinary practice, Tuller says.
These services allow veterinarians to regain business from horse owners, who often turn to big box retailers and Internet sellers for lower prices. Tuller notes that while online pharmacies may offer lower prices, this is largely because they don’t share profits with the veterinarians who write prescriptions. If more horse owners were aware of this dynamic – which takes support away from local veterinarians – “perhaps fewer purchases would be made on these big-box pharmacy sites.”
She also notes that in the interest of saving money, online retailers sometimes cut corners when it comes to security. “Veterinarians and practice staff need to educate their horse owners about the risks of purchasing medications and supplies from non-accredited [by the Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (Vet-VIPPS) program] sites, and build loyalty,” she says.
Vets First Choice aims to help practices do this effectively.
Included with the Vets First Choice service is an ongoing client email outreach campaign customized to the individual veterinary practice. These emails, which are sent to clients directly from the practice, include coupons while highlighting the benefits of buying products from a reputable source – in this case, the client’s own veterinarian.
Practices also receive in-office marketing materials so that doctors and staff can connect with clients about online purchasing options. These materials include coupons to provide incentive for horse owners to try the online system.
In addition, Vets First Choice has what Tuller calls a system of “proactive” scripting: When clients don’t purchase medications from the veterinarian in the barn or at the time of the service visit, the veterinarian can create a digital prescription, prompting an email to the client. If the client still has not purchased within a few days, Vets First Choice sends a second email “with a friendly reminder of their veterinarian’s recommendation,” says Tuller. Veterinarians also have the ability to set recommendations to be sent to the horse owner as a reminder at a future date.
“We have strong data that shows that practices using a prescription management platform see overall increase in compliance, better horse healthcare, and increased revenue growth” through re-engaged clients, says Tuller. However, veterinarians, including equine practitioners, often remain apprehensive about using online purchasing platforms such as Vets First Choice. This apprehension stems from what she calls the “Big Four Misconceptions”:
If clients buy online rather than in person, profits will be less. Tuller says that what these veterinarians don’t realize is that most clients are already purchasing medications and over-the-counter products elsewhere, whether online or at horse shows. Instituting an online store can help veterinarians bring back customers who have turned to other sources.
Using an online purchasing platform costs more than doing it myself. Tuller says that practitioners tend to underestimate the full cost of carrying inventory, failing to take into account factors such as how long it takes to place, track, and receive orders, the resources necessary for monitoring inventory, and shrinkage. Add on costs from invoicing and accounts receivable, and the “hidden” costs are actually greater than the cost of the product. By having an outside purchasing platform filling the orders, those costs are reduced.
An online store will erode profits. Purchasing platforms – especially those that also help manage prescriptions – increase compliance by sending automated reminders encouraging customers to refill prescriptions more regularly, as prescribed by the veterinarian, explains Tuller. Veterinarians are often unaware of this, and tend to underestimate their potential increased sales and profit margins when they miss this aspect of compliance.
Implementing an online store will be more effort than it is worth. But Tuller explains that with the platform, veterinarians are doing the same thing they were already doing – writing prescriptions. The only difference is that now they are doing it digitally, while tracking refills and renewals in a more effective way than many practices tend to do. The purchasing platform takes care of the outreach, informing lost clients that they can now purchase online directly from their veterinarians, “which they prefer to do anyway,” she says.
The distributor rep
When veterinary practices implement online purchasing platforms, says Tuller, they regain clients who have turned to other sources for products, as well as clients who have left the practice completely. Bringing these customers back means an increase not only in sales of medicine, but in sales of overall services and growth of the practice.
Distributor reps can educate veterinarians about their options, and account managers at Vets First Choice can prepare distributors to do that. Practices continue to rely on distributors for products in their clinics and on their trucks, Tuller observes. Additionally, when clients return to the practice to buy products, there is a great chance they’ll continue to buy other services too, which will require the assistance of the distributor.
“In our view, every distributor rep should be knowledgeable about the options available to practices, and should… advise equine practitioners that their world is changing and they need to change with it to thrive,” says Tuller. “When they do this, everyone wins.”