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How Covid spurred a turnaround for India's e-pharma industry

Online pharmacy companies saw a massive jump in users during the pandemic

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Mumbai: According to a 2019 EY report, the Indian e-pharma sector was poised to touch $2.7 billion by 2023 from $360 million. The report cited an increase in internet penetration and smartphone ownership, along with the ease of ordering medications through an e-commerce platform and an increase in chronic diseases as some of the key growth drivers for the online pharma industry.

And this was before the Covid-19 put a gigantic spoke in the wheel of our outdoor activities. And, before it became hara-kiri to step out of one’s house for as mundane a task as purchasing some prescription pills.

The Covid Tsunami Effect

One year plus of the tidal onslaught of the Covid tsunami has brought about irrevocable changes into the world. The exponential and fast-tracked tilt towards everything digital was one of them and it was obvious that online pharmacies and healthcare would not be far behind.

“With limited reach and usage till a year ago, the pandemic has changed the landscape drastically. Lockdowns, restricted movement, and policy initiatives have enabled higher adoption, penetration, and substantial growth,” says digital marketing agency Natter COO Avinash Joshi as he opines on the growth in India’s e-pharma space.

High caseloads, especially in urban areas coupled with regional lockdowns have compelled consumers to take the online route rather than visit the friendly neighbourhood pharmacies. It’s no longer simply a matter of convenience but about undertaking any added risk by venturing out unnecessarily.

Driven by the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, India’s e-pharmacy sector is once again witnessing a surge in orders. There has also been a spike in sales of Covid-related products - such as pulse oximeters, personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, oxygen cans, masks, sanitizers, health supplements across major online pharma players, in addition to regular drugs. 

Overall Growth in the e-Sector

According to dentsu Impact president Amit Wadhwa, the e-pharma sector in India is still in its nascent stage and while it has been growing rapidly in the last 4-5 years in India, a big surge in that growth happened only over the last one year. “This is not just visible in the industry growth numbers and how we are seeing consumers using/ talking about the platform, but also with the number of new players that we are constantly seeing entering this segment, with even traditional chemists such as Apollo Pharmacy along with big names such as Amazon diving right in,” says Wadhwa.

As per estimates, 35 per cent of the domestic pharmaceutical market relates to chronic medications and the remainder to acute medicines. E-pharmacies have been targeting the chronic market majorly so far and are expected to scale up the acute medicine market through an improvement in last-mile logistics and collaboration with local pharmacies.

“In the years to come, people will look at 2020 as ‘the year that changed everything- especially the way we reach out to our end consumers’,” says Hybrid healthcare start up Healthnovo co-founder Rima Sunit. “We see an increasing trend of teleconsultation, online ordering of medicines, etc. Even doctors are now adapting to new methods of providing prescriptions by using digital tools and consulting their patients over a video call. Currently, the Indian market is flooded by online players offering the best services at discounted prices.”

According to industry trackers, the sector’s growth is on top of an already robust revenue increase of around 35 per cent last year. The second wave and the consequent uptick in orders are setting the industry up for yet another year of strong growth in the range of 30-50 per cent. An almost 3X expansion in the number of users ordering medicines online means the sector is bound to see strong revenue growth this year as well.

Major players & their marketing game

Some of the leading players in this race to tap into the burgeoning e-pharma sector are 1mg, Netmeds, Pharmeasy, and Medlife with many new entrants emerging on the scene. In the last few months, brands like PharmEasy have been wooing the customer with a deluge of commercials, amplifying their message of ‘Aapki Health Aapke Haath Mein hai’ (your health is in your hands), with a dash of humour and relatability to the common man.

Netmeds roped in celebrity brand ambassador, Kareena Kapoor to convey the reliability and safety of their service, coupled with the ease and convenience of access for the customer.

According to Wadhwa, the brands are focusing their messaging on discounts and ease of delivery as ‘this is a phase where the category is creating awareness and the intent is to gain from the physical chemists’. He adds, “As the category gains more acceptance, we will see a more defined and differentiated messaging/ tonality across at least the key brands where possibly more planks such as trust, presence, etc. might be explored.”

Reaping the benefits of increased demand, online pharmacies and digital health companies have been passing on some of the paybacks to consumers by offering generous discounts on online purchases. This helped drive up the sales initially, while brands were trying to make a dent in the hitherto traditional Indian pharma market. In the long run, however, discounts may have to come down to reasonable levels to achieve breakeven and any meaningful profitability.

“With several local & global players in the fray, a lot of money is being spent to own and retain that exclusive audience. These brands are spending big on ATL and driving performance on digital with retargeting, scaling up downloads, offering discounts & referrals. These digital-first brands make use of chat-bots for queries & resolutions, AI & ML for recommendations, and tracking tools & digital payments for fulfilment. They are also spending big on content creation to engage with the user on the right platform,” says Natter COO Avinash Joshi.

Despite challenges like trust deficit, customer support issues, and remote area access, if the spurt in the e- pharma industry continues, it can aid in the regulation of the Indian pharma space. As e-pharma companies insist on verifying the prescription online before dispensing medicine they are likely to be more structured than their traditional counterparts.

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