Mail-order pharmacies have represented growing and daunting competition to brick-and-mortar pharmacies for several years as more prescription drug plans are mandating them.

But a recent J.D. Power study indicates customer satisfaction with physical pharmacies is higher than mail-order ones and the gap is growing.

Particularly for independent pharmacists in South Jersey, mail-order is stiff competition.

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Several local independent pharmacists say personal interaction with, and knowledge about, their customers is an important component of their businesses and a critical function of survival.

"I have many patients that pay a couple extra dollars for their prescriptions in order to have that face-to-face relationship," said Upper Township pharmacist John Brittin, who owns the Village Pharmacy in the Marmora section of Upper Township with his wife, Teresa. "It may cost them an extra $100 over the course of the year and I'm extremely grateful to those patients because they get it. … I think that personal relationship makes a huge difference."

Brittin has worked at the pharmacy since 1989 and has owned it since 1999.

In a recent interview, long-time area pharmacist Scott Reef, the owner of Reef Family Pharmacy in Cape May Court House, cited the growth of mandatory mail-order pharmacies as a challenge. He also said he relished the personal interaction with customers.

J.D. Power's 2013 U.S. Pharmacy Study notes mail-order pharmacies once held a customer satisfaction advantage over brick-and-mortar locations mostly due to perceived cost competitiveness.

However, satisfaction with brick-and-mortar pharmacies is increasing at a faster pace, according to the study of 13,500 pharmacy customers who filled or refilled a prescription.

Customer satisfaction with brick-and-mortar pharmacies reached 837 points on a 1,000 point scale in 2013, an increase of 23 points from the year before.

Mail-order pharmacies improved to 797 points, up 5 points, says J.D. Power, a California-based marketing information company.

For customer satisfaction, physical pharmacies were rated on: prescription ordering, store cost, non-pharmacist staff and pharmacist.

The mail-order segment was ranked by: cost, prescription delivery, prescription ordering process and customer service experience.

"For the most part, the widening gap in satisfaction has more to do with improved satisfaction in the brick-and-mortar segment than declining satisfaction in mail order," Scott Hawkins, director of the healthcare practice at J.D. Power, said in a statement.

Hawkins said it is important for mail-order pharmacies to "combine high-tech with high touch."

"Not only does the online experience need to keep technological pace with other retail sites that pharmacy customers visit, but customer service opportunities that provide personal connections are essential as well," he said in a statement.

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