Pharming Finaghy

Balmoral Pharmacy

Gerry Watters, owner of Balmoral Pharmacy speaks to Neighbourhood Retailer about how a well-stocked pharmacy is the key to survival in this busy market.

Balmoral Pharmacy is a large and airy store, with a well-regarded pharmacy practitioner behind the counter and a range of goods throughout. Some of those goods are expected, some less so.

Handbags. Perhaps not what one expects to see when one walks into a local pharmacy, but there they are – several of them, neatly stocked on shelves by the front door of Balmoral Pharmacy in Finaghy. The range of bags stands out as it’s quite unexpected, but the store contains a  huge range of convenience goods – from toilet rolls and cleaning products – to the items not expected of a modern pharmacy in shampoos and gent’s shower products, as well as the brightly lit pharmacy counter in the corner.

The next thing noticeable is the smiling face approaching. While Gerry Watters, the pharmacy’s owner was expecting Neighbourhood Retailer on this bright and sunny March morning, it’s clear he’s well-practiced in getting out from behind his counter to speak with those who come through the door.

“We pride ourselves on excellent customer service,” he says, as we sit down. “That’s our big, big thing. We do have a lot of pharmacies around the area, so we need to make sure we get our regular customers in through the door, make sure they see the products they want and that they get the customer service that they want.”

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Balmoral Pharmacy, South Belfast.

The range of products on show pays testament to Watters’ commitment to offering customers what they want. “Everyone has cleaning products,” he says. Those were the first convenience products the company offered, and it’s still a busy part of the shop. Branching into the convenience items may have been a bold move, with there being two large petrol stations within eyesight of the pharmacy, but Watters is bullish, if realistic.

“They’ve got bigger in recent years. We try to make all our products compete from a price perspective – and we certainly offer a range of items they don’t from the healthcare side of things obviously. But on top of that we’re here to offer the advice. That’s the important thing about healthcare, the pharmacy staff are all trained up to a high level and of course pharmacists.”

Neighbourhood Retailer is keen to learn more about the handbags – one doesn’t naturally associate a pharmacy with fashion items. Watters says some of his staff made the suggestion, which is something he prides himself on – listening to the ideas from those who know the shop best.

“Handbags are something we delved into a few years’ ago. The girls said there could be a niche in the market – offering gift items such as handbags. That’s where that came from, we had the space to do it, and we’ve been selling handbags for three or four years now. They sell very well – especially around Christmas and Mothers’ Day.”

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Balmoral Pharmacy, South Belfast.

The Balmoral Pharmacy is a large, bright store – of course there’s logic behind stocking a variety of items. They are all competitively priced, and while patients are waiting for their prescription they can take the time to browse the shelves.

“I hope people come in here and find a nice environment to spend time and indulge in buying some other things they might not necessarily have on their shopping list.”

Watter’s staff plays a large part in what happens in the shop, and he empowers them by listening to them, taking their advice onboard.

“The staff are excellent,” he says. “They think of this place as their own shop, not just my shop. Everything they do out there they’ll do off their own back then come to me and suggest different things to try. I feel so confident in them too, in letting them run the over-the-counter medicines and certainly all the gifts, beauty, and accessories. They know what our customers like, and we like to try different things.”

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Balmoral Pharmacy, South Belfast.

A graduate of Queens, Watters went to Manchester for seven years in the late nineties and early noughties, where he picked up a lot of the intricacies of running a successful pharmacy, which he brought back to Northern Ireland in 2002.

“I learnt a lot over in Manchester, on retail and customer service, management of staff, dealing with awkward patients, that type of thing.”

When he came back he worked at a Boots in Ballymena, and as a locum in a number of pharmacies mainly in the Belfast area.

Then in 2005, the opportunity came up for Watters to buy the pharmacy from Alan Eagleson, a good friend of Watters who owned and ran Balmoral Pharmacy for five years. But the business isn’t for everyone.

“It was a great opportunity for me, but it also gave Alan the opportunity to move on and do something that suited him as well.”

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Balmoral Pharmacy, South Belfast.

“The shop had a refit four or five years ago. It used to be a third of the size it is now. I had the opportunity to extend the shop when the owner of the shop next door – a little lawnmower repair shop – unfortunately passed away. I then started knocking walls down then and made Balmoral Pharmacy what it is today.”

When Watters expanded the pharmacy, he built a consultation room – a private area he can take patients to discuss things. That includes minor ailments, which is a category aimed to ease the queues at general practitioners (GPs) and includes diarrhoea, athlete’s foot, thrush, ear wax, and a list of conditions the Balmoral Pharmacy can offer treatment for. That’s not where the pharmacy’s move into assisting the local community’s health stops, says Watters.

“We also provide medicines use review (MUR), for specialist conditions such as diabetes and asthma. So I’ll bring patients into the consultation room, have a chat with them, review their medications: do they know what medications are being used, any side effects, and check their lifestyle. If all that’s fine, great, if not, we’ll contact the GP and inform them of any issues that might have come up during the consultation.”

Ill politics

But the health service is stuttering, with a lack of support at governmental level restricting how pharmacies can improve their services, and funding recently being reduced thanks to hold ups at Stormont. Although independent reviews of the pharmacy market have suggested the Northern Irish pharmaceutical market requires a £100m cash injection in order to operate optimally and support the wider health system, the freeze at Stormont means little can be done and a set of cutbacks occurred in November leaving the industry struggling.

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Balmoral Pharmacy, South Belfast.

“If the appropriate funding was in place to pharmacies we would be able to offer more services, which could take pressure off the health service and GPs. But the funding has been cut so there’s less opportunity for us to do these things.”

Further, small businesses such as Balmoral Pharmacy have been trying to get what’s known as a pharmacy contract, which states that certain services will be recompensed by the government directly. Although Balmoral has been offering these services, the Stormont situation means the pharmacy is not being paid the money it is due.

“It’s difficult for other retailers as well, obviously, in the healthcare, the over-the-counter health and the beauty side of things is run like a normal retailer: you buy stuff in from the wholesaler, and you sell it. You’ve got your margin there,” says Watters.

“For pharmacy it’s totally different, in the dispensary side where we’re governed by the Northern Ireland Health Board – who can essentially take money off us whenever they want. I might be getting 10 percent more customers but I’m actually getting paid 10 percent less.”

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Balmoral Pharmacy, South Belfast. Pic: Proprietor, Gerry Watters.

Watters has spoken to local politicians, including Paula Bradshaw, MLA for South Belfast, Mairtin Ó Muilleoir, MLA, and has come to rely on the Community Pharmacy NI, a trade body that lobbies Stormont for the industry. But with Stormont frozen, the latest cutbacks are being felt across the board.

“Many pharmacies will not be able to meet their financial demands over the next few months – wages, bills etc, so unfortunately some might close especially in the rural areas,” says Watters.

“Fortunately we’ve been able to change the way we do things, cutting down on some things but thankfully I haven’t had to go anywhere near the staff bills. Everyone has had to tighten the belt – some more considerably than others. I’m fortunate that we’re able to increase business but others who are just keeping things steady are going to start seeing their finances come down”.

Key to the community

Speaking with Watters in his consultation room, we’re interrupted regularly as customers and patients come into the store. He’s dedicated to making sure staff are supported and the store is operating as it should be. Over the course of the year, the pharmacy makes sure it’s well stocked with the right seasonal requirements with flu vaccinations popular as the winter approaches and travel vaccinations a big hit before and during the summer months.

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Balmoral Pharmacy, South Belfast.

But it’s about being far more proactive in the local community, for Watters. In recent years, he’s ran both the Belfast Half Marathon and the Great Northern Run in recent years to raise funds for the pharmacy’s local hospice – which had taken care of a number of Watters’ customers. He works with local businesses to promote the different vaccination services the pharmacy offers, and it’s not unusual for Watters or one of his members of staff to visit one of their elderly customers if they haven’t seen them in a few days.

“We’re a community pharmacy. We want to look after our patients,” he says.

“I would often go home after all these years and drop in one three or four houses on the way. In the cold weather there I called in on a couple of pensioners who I hadn’t seen during the day to make sure they’re OK.”

And the idea of going that extra mile is felt among the staff.

“Caroline will go and visit a couple of them as well, Michael is always keen to walk to the bottom of the street just to make sure somebody is well. We’re all similar in that way. Having that type of team behind you pushes everybody to be motivated and keep up to the same levels.”


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