U-Care is a byword amongst westerners looking for a good pharmacy, now Cambodians are also learning the hidden value of quality health products.
By Dean Hethington
From the upper floors of U-Care’s most popular pharmacy on the corner of Sothearos and Street 178 in Phnom Penh, the firm’s managing director Khun Bolin explains that the company – a favourite among the city’s expat community and visiting tourists – was actually founded with Cambodians in mind: “I wanted to create good pharmacies for my country,” says the young mother of three children.
While medicines in most other countries in the region are frequently sold through international chains such as Boots, Guardian and Century Health, in Cambodia the job has thus far been the preserve of individual shop owners, who after obtaining a licence to sell medicines then sell them in much the same way as they would soft drinks or household equipment. This has never inspired much confidence in visitors, and now local Cambodians are becoming aware of the importance and attraction of buying medicines and other body products from professionally run outlets
The difference in the U-Care brand is obvious: faultless design, high quality pharmaceuticals and professionally trained uniformed staff. Each store has at least one registered, university trained pharmacist, as opposed to a medicine seller, on duty at all times. “They study for four to five years to obtain the certificate,” says Khun Bolin. “They speak English and French, and they can help the customer identify or diagnose the problem.”
Similar standards of service exist in the cosmetics section of each store, with at least one personal care assistant on hand to help customers with the proper application of cosmetics and hair and skin care products, effectively creating one-stop outlets for health and beauty. The two sections pull in about the same amount of revenue, says Khun Bolin.
“Each store has a manager who takes care of their store,” she says. “The outlets employ around 12 staff each. Many of our workers have been with us since we opened our first store five years ago.”
The U-Care chain now comprises seven outlets, three in Phnom Penh and four in Siem Reap. The type of customers at the stores varies according to location, with the Sothearos outlet, close to the tourist-oriented riverside attracting mainly westerners, and the shop on the more commercial Sihanouk catering mainly for local trade. A common theme amongst the clientele is that they are affluent, care about how they look and what they put into their bodies. The vast majority of U-Care’s products are internationally recognised brands that Cambodians are becoming increasingly familiar with.
“Before, most Cambodians wanted to find the least expensive medicines. But now, year by year, they don’t care as much about the price, but they care about quality,” she explains. “We survey products all over the country and try to set the lowest price. The price is the same at every store.” As an added incentive, the chain offers a discount card for regular customers and a points and gifts scheme.
U-Care has its own computerised inventory control and ordering system, which tracks medicines according to sell-by date. Cambodian pharmacies have often been taken to task for selling medicines long after the shelf life has expired. “We’re very careful about this. We have a team that checks the dates every month,” Khun Bolin explains. Products can be restocked weekly, if necessary. Most products are shipped by air, but some by sea, almost all are imported. In the main, products are sourced from the US, France and Japan.
In order to keep herself up to date with new products Khun Bolin makes frequent trips abroad to visit fairs and is in constant contact with suppliers for the latest state-of-the-art drugs. The firm also wholesales products to local hospitals and NGOs at discounted rates.
She says that choosing locations for new stores is the most challenging aspect of her work. “We want to open more stores in the provinces, in Kampot, Sihanoukville and Battambang, if we can find good locations. I want to have a lot of pharmacies.”
A short cut to this aim is to create the stores in pre-existing commercial buildings. Khun Bolin sees this as the way forward: “If there’s already a building, it’s just a question of the renovation. We look at places of 25 square metres to 80 square metres. It then takes only about six months to set up a new store.”
She maintains her optimism despite a slight drop in trade as the credit crunch bites and the shortfall in tourists reduces custom, particularly in the Siem Reap stores. She says business in Phnom Penh has remained more or less stable. “Last year, for about four or five months people were afraid that things were not so good. But today it’s better,” she claims.
So Khun Bolin’s recipe of identifying a nascent trend in the health and beauty concept, employing a loyal and qualified workforce and enjoying the economies of scale that comes with multiple outlets seems to be a successful formula for both the lean and the good times.