To really succeed in herbal sales, you have to become an expert. Those who’ve done it say it’s worth the effort.

BY SONYA FELIX

Ten years ago, when customers asked pharmacist Mark Rosenhek about complementary remedies, he was constantly referring them to health food stores. That changed when he opened his own 3,000-sq.-ft. drugstore, Markie’s Pharmacy, in an upscale neighbourhood in downtown Toronto in 1993. “I figured, why should I send them elsewhere?”

Today, sales of herbal remedies alone make up about 30% of total revenue and “it keeps growing,” says Rosenhek.

In retrospect, Rosenhek’s decision to focus on complementary remedies, including herbal and homeopathic remedies and nutritional supplements, was a wise move. By now, herbal remedies are mainstream. Virtually all drugstores (95%) sell herbals, according to Pharmacy Post’s 1999 Survey of Pharmacy Owners & Managers (although that drops to 83% in Quebec). And 54% sell homeopathic remedies (that climbs to 80% in Quebec).

Last year, Canadians spent $77 million on the 13 herbal remedies tracked by ACNielsen in drugstores and foodstore pharmacies. That’s a sales increase of 7% and a volume increase of 4% (for the year ending October 9, 1999).

A recent national Gallup survey sponsored by Traditional Medicinals, makers of medicinal herbal teas, found that two-thirds of respondents believe that herbal supplements can be as effective as prescription drugs or over-the-counter remedies in the maintenance, prevention and treatment of health problems.

Health Vision 1999 data, gathered by ACNielsen and sponsored by the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association of Canada, shows that 30% of Canadian adults took an herbal or homeopathic remedy in the past 12 months.

The survey also found that 42% of those who use herbals or homeopathic remedies took them daily. More than one in four (27%) used these medications only when not feeling well, and 19% said they took them occasionally.

For most people, taking herbal or homeopathic remedies is a fairly new practice. One in four (25%) said they’d been taking them for less than a year, while 30% had been taking them for between one and two years. The most common reasons for taking alternative remedies were to alleviate the symptoms of a specific illness or disease (16%) and to prevent illness or disease (15%).

The good news for pharmacists is that drugstores are the destination of choice for purchases of herbal and homeopathic remedies. Of those who use these complementary medicines, 60% buy them in a drugstore, 41% buy them in a health food store, 24% go to a natural health store and 19% make their purchases at a supermarket.

RESPONSIBILITY GOES WITH SALES

With consumers’ growing interest in herbal remedies comes a growing demand for accurate information. Only 6% of herbal users consult pharmacists for information, according to results from the 1998 Health Vision survey. The top sources of information are family members/friends (35%) and health books (18%).

That has put the pressure on pharmacists to educate themselves and their customers. And it appears that pharmacists are making the effort: according to Pharmacy Post’s 1999 Survey of Pharmacy Owners & Managers, almost three out of four (71%) pharmacists now feel they know enough about herbal remedies to make recommendations on their use.

Extra training–which usually means reading literature, attending courses and consulting with alternative health practitioners–is definitely a must, says Fran├žois Jooste, a naturopath and pharmacist at Pharma Plus in Beamsville, Ontario, where herbals account for about 40% of his business.

“There are a lot of potential interactions between drugs, herbals, disease and nutrition,” he says. “You have to be able to predict the interactions. Most physicians and pharmacists haven’t been trained in natural pharmacy.”

Pharmacists who choose not to learn about alternative therapies because of the relatively scarce amount of clinical data should also reconsider whether they’re really serving their patients. “If doctors or pharmacists are negative towards herbals, people won’t go back to them. But they’ll [take the herbals] anyway despite advice [not to] from their healthcare practitioner,” says Jooste.

Sherry Torkos is a pharmacist at the 10,000-sq.-ft. Pro Health Pharmacy in Fort Erie, Ontario, where 1,400 sq. ft. are dedicated to complementary or alternative therapies. When she graduated from pharmacy school in 1992, Torkos had very little training in alternatives. Since then, she’s educated herself to the point where she calls herself a “holistic pharmacist” and works with naturopathic doctors and physicians who practice ‘natural’ medicine. She is also a regular lecturer at the Canadian Health Food Association’s conferences and teaches about herbal medicine.

“Many consumers are researching herbal medicines on the Internet and getting recommendations from friends and family,” says Torkos. “That’s scary. So, it’s really important for healthcare professionals to be aware of the products.”

Although you can’t know about everything on the market, says Torkos, “you can arm yourself with a couple of good resource books and a network of reliable sources. There are more and more resource books coming out all the time, as well as good software programs that provide information about herbs and interactions.”

A guarantee of quality is another important consideration, says Torkos. “As pharmacists, we can be held liable when we recommend products. It’s not easy to know which products to carry when everyone is making them these days and there’s so much marketing hype. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to stick with products made by big pharmaceutical companies who have good quality control testing and guarantee potency and purity. The product labels don’t say this–you have to ask the manufacturer if they guarantee that the product inside the bottle meets the label claims.”