Friday, June 14, 2024

Wellness Forever: India’s Third-Largest Pharmacy Chain with a Food Retail Twist

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Over the past 15 years of its retailing journey, Wellness Forever has played a significant role in reshaping the landscape of health and wellness retail across India. Starting off as standalone pharmacies by the founders in Mumbai’s Parel, the company is now a leading pharmacy chain with 407 stores that are bridging the gap between traditional pharma and contemporary wellness solutions.

From pioneering innovations in pharmaceutical accessibility to a steadfast commitment to health- conscious offerings, discover how Wellness Forever remains at the vanguard of shaping the contours of health and wellness retail in the contemporary era.

In the world of entrepreneurship, few stories shine as brightly as that of Wellness Forever Medicare Ltd. Established in 2008, its story unfolds as a compelling narrative spun by three professionals in the pharmaceutical industry who started out as colleagues but later became friends and business partners.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Ashraf Biran, Gulshan Bakhtiani, and Mohan Chavan were pursuing their thriving careers in the pharmaceutical industry. From different corners of the industry in Mumbai, they emerged not just as colleagues, but as kindred spirits bonded by a shared passion for excellence in Health & Wellness Retail.

“All three of us are first-generation entrepreneurs with humble beginnings in life. We each pursued our pharmacy careers independently for several years. Each of us had approximately 20 years of experience in the industry by the time we came together to launch Wellness Forever in 2008,” says Gulshan Bakhtiani, Founder and Director, Wellness Forever.

Each of the three associates brought their own unique expertise to the table. Ashraf was a seasoned pharmacist and pharmacy owner with a keen eye for detail and a passion for healthcare. But he harbored a longstanding vision of creating a space where wellness and care intersected seamlessly. Gulshan was an Area Sales Manager with a knack for strategy and a wealth of experience in navigating the complex terrain of pharmaceutical sales. Completing this triumvirate was Mohan Chavan, a pharma distributor known for his expertise in logistics and distribution.

Amidst the rising tide of organized retailing in the early aughts, Ashraf, Gulshan, and Mohan discerned a glaring gap – a void where traditional pharmacies offered mere remedies for ailments, oblivious to the burgeoning need for holistic wellness. It was to fill this gap that Wellness Forever was born – to offer a guiding path and illuminate the way towards preventive healthcare and general well-being.

“It was evident that traditional pharmacies were confined to a narrow scope and were focused primarily on reactive healthcare rather than holistic wellness. Sensing a shift towards preventive care and overall well-being, we identified the need for a transformation and set out to fill this void,” recounts Ashraf Biran, Founder and Director, Wellness Forever.

Their mission was simple with a clear purpose: Establish a venture to provide individuals with convenient access to high quality healthcare products and supplementary services. “Our vision was to establish a pharmacy that provided customers with round-the-clock accessibility, spacious and inviting store layouts conducive to unhurried exploration, an extensive range of wellness and lifestyle products, a team of skilled and certified pharmacists dedicated to delivering excellence, and a diverse assortment of merchandise tailored to accommodate a wide spectrum of preferences and requirements,” says Mohan Chavan, Founder and Director, Wellness Forever.

Prior to embarking on the realization of their vision, the trio extensively toured various regions worldwide, examining and analyzing diverse formats and store models – from Target to Walgreens, and many more. Yet, it was during a trip to Boots, a health and beauty retailer and pharmacy chain in the United Kingdom, where they experienced a moment of epiphany. Standing amidst the aisles, they collectively realized that this was the retailing model they wanted to introduce in the Indian market.

Gulshan reflects, “When the three of us visited Boots in the UK, we had a moment of realization. We felt like this was what we had always wanted to do and what India truly needed. It was fulfilling to envision offering similar services to our customers. So, Boots in the UK served as our inspiration.”

Armed with determination and enriched by newfound knowledge, they returned to India, prepared to turn their vision into reality. Their blueprint for business was as bold as it was ingenious. Drawing inspiration from global giants like Boots, they imagined a world where pharmacies weren’t merely places to pick up medicine but also centers for providing holistic healthcare and wellness solutions.

The three friends-turned-entrepreneurs also recognized the importance of structuring their business within a corporate framework. This realization prompted them to develop and implement a corporate strategy for their retail venture. “We foresaw India’s sustained growth for the next 50 years. With this foresight, we understood the imperative of corporatization in the retail sector, which became the foundational basis of Wellness Forever,” adds Gulshan.

A Journey of Growth and Expansion

Wellness Forever today operates as a large omni-channel, hyperlocal retail network, serving as a one-stop solution for customers’ wellness needs with most of the stores operating 24×7. About 98% of them are open day and night, which means they’re available to the community at all times, providing service to the people in the areas they serve.

Ashraf informs that their company primarily operates within the State of Maharashtra. “As a company headquartered in Maharashtra, we maintain a strong focus on serving the population within the State.”

But Wellness Forever is also present in the States of Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Overall, the brand has a presence in four States and over 50 cities across the country. Launching its operations from Mumbai’s Parel, the enterprise has grown into a sprawling network of 407 stores across the nation.

Of the total number of Wellness Forever stores, 70 are franchise-owned, franchise-operated and about 337 are company owned and company-operated. A characteristic feature of the retailer is how it distinguishes itself through proactive engagement with its franchise stores.

The brand is deeply committed to empowering independent entrepreneurs to own and manage Wellness Forever outlets, leveraging its data-driven and technology-enabled systems. Through this partnership, franchise owners benefit from procurement advantages, market intelligence, robust branding, and scalable marketing initiatives provided by Wellness Forever. While the entrepreneur operates the store, Wellness Forever retains ownership of the consumer-facing brand.

Within the company-operated establishments, 23 locations serve as hospital pharmacies, strategically situated within some of India’s top-tier hospitals. These outlets represent a highly specialized format wherein Wellness Forever collaborates with prominent hospitals nationwide to exclusively operate pharmacies within their premises.

A standard Wellness Forever store spans 800 square feet of space, with approximately 300 square feet allocated for pharmaceutical products and the remaining 500 square feet designated for a self-browsing section. Here, customers can conveniently browse and select from a variety of everyday essentials to fulfill their day-to-day needs.

Commencing from its initial 800 square feet outlet, the enterprise has since expanded its retail presence significantly, now commanding an impressive total footprint of approximately 320,000 square feet.

The retailer takes pride in its workforce, which comprises over 5,300 individuals, with nearly one-third being female employees. “Approximately 30% of our workforce consists of women, with several being managed by women and a few being operated by a women-only team, fondly known as our ‘Women of Wellness’ stores. By empowering women to lead and manage their own business units, we are demonstrating our commitment to nurturing confidence within the community and making a positive contribution to society,” says Gulshan.

The brand adheres to an asset-light model wherein all its self-operated stores are leased as part of a strategic decision to optimize resources and adapt to market changes efficiently. This approach demonstrates the company’s financial savvy and commitment to customer satisfaction, allowing it to focus on enhancing products, services, and customer relationships while minimizing upfront costs and risks associated with property ownership.

Accessible & Authentic Medicines a Top Priority

Currently, about 45% of Wellness Forever’s business comes from non-pharmaceutical products, while the remaining 55% comes from pharmaceuticals. This distribution reflects the company’s current operational focus and revenue breakdown.

With medicine serving as the bedrock of the business, pharmaceutical availability and having medicines in stock more than other retail offerings sold in their stores is a top priority for the brand.

Given the importance it places on customer service, the company has a specialized division known as the “Custodian of Availability.” This dedicated team ensures that if a specific medication is unavailable, it is promptly sourced and made accessible to the customer within 48 hours.

Gulshan recalls a recent incident where the “Custodian of Availability” team was helpful in getting a customer the medicines required. “A patient accompanied by his pregnant wife needed an injection to be carried for their travel to Amsterdam as a precautionary measure. Given the length of the journey and temperature sensitive nature of this injection, the injection was properly packed in an insulated box. The couple were also given detailed instructions on handling and care for the injection whilst travelling, including guiding the crew on storing it effectively on the aircraft. A small gesture that showcases how we care for our customer’s needs.”

What’s also really cool about the company is how they use technology to streamline operations. The organization leverages cutting-edge technologies to enhance operational efficiency. Key platforms include central planogramming software, a technologically advanced warehouse operating as a Zero Error Distribution Center (ZEDC), seamlessly integrated Point-of-Sale (POS) systems, feature-rich Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, and an agile Order Management System (OMS) facilitating omnichannel commerce. These tools enable the company to maintain optimal inventory levels in their stores and ensure customers receive timely access to the products they require.

Data too plays a crucial role in shaping and curating Wellness Forever’s product offerings, ensuring their relevance to customers. The merchandising team is proactive and vigilant, constantly on the lookout for new products that align with customer needs and preferences. This hands-on approach enables Wellness Forever to maintain specialization in both its pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical businesses.

Offering Healthier Choices in Food

In the world of business, profit margins are like the heartbeat of a company’s financial health. They tell us how much of the revenue a business keeps after covering its costs. Regarding Wellness Forever’s revenue breakdown between pharmaceutical and non- pharmaceutical sectors, Gulshan explains that the current ratio stands at about 55% generated from pharmaceutical sales and remaining 45% from non-pharmaceutical products.

The non-pharmaceutical selection at Wellness Forever stores features categories like eldery, mother & baby care, clean beauty, derma products, hair care, sexual wellness, deodorants, nutraceuticals and packaged food & beverages.

In discussing its packaged food business, Ashraf says that Wellness Forever has always maintained a deliberate focus on offering items such as healthy snacks and nutritious foods even since its inception, but not traditional grocery items.

“We want to redefine pharmacies to wellness destinations where one comes to build more preventive habits rather than only find a cure, with a focus on health & wellness product selections for our customers to discover across our store network.”

In 2020, amidst the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, while many businesses were compelled to suspend operations, Wellness Forever’s stores were granted permission to continue operations as essential services. During this period, the retailer witnessed a surge in foot traffic as individuals sought out their daily essentials from its outlets.

“We noticed a significant increase in demand for categories like ready-to-cook, ready-to- eat, health supplements, popcorn, ice creams, snacks, beverages, nutraceuticals and many more,” admits Ashraf, adding that it made them recognize the benefits of expanding the selection of food and beverage products in its stores.

“Our merchandising and internal teams spotted trends of consistent demand in these categories across our network, which helped us cater to our customers’ preferences effectively” says Ashraf while mentioning that the pandemic proved to be the trigger for augmenting the assortment of food and beverage offerings within their retail outlets.

As a consequence, Wellness Forever underwent a transformation across its product assortment, with a focus on bringing more interesting selections for its customers across the network. Today, its product range includes diverse categories such as Breakfast Cereals, Health Food & Drinks, Ready-to-cook & Ready-to-eat products, Snacks, Beverages and many more in the packaged foods categories. It has also expanded its non-food selections in categories like mother & baby care, hair care, derma products, sexual wellness, deos & fragrances, bath & body, grooming, personal & intimate hygiene and similar specialty categories.

While the brand has expanded its food portfolio to include various categories, its commitment to health and wellness remains steadfast. “When we refer to food, we specifically emphasize healthy eating. Our focus is on promoting wellness, and not on offering staples like sugar, wheat, rice, or flour,” says Ashraf. For instance, instead of finding sugar at Wellness Forever stores, you will find healthier alternatives such as powdered jaggery. Similarly, you will find biscuits with enhanced nutritional content, oats, and energy bars across its store network. The focus is on prioritizing wellness over conventional packaged foods.

Gulshan reflects on the evolution of consumer preferences and notes that what was once considered a niche category — such as healthy chocolate, biscuits, or snacks — has now become deeply entrenched in mainstream consciousness, particularly following the pandemic. He says that the aspirational middle class has grown significantly, eroding the divide between niche and mainstream products.

He explains that the shift towards health-conscious choices is evident in customer browsing habits and basket composition. Even traditionally hygiene products like Dettol are now sought with value-added health benefits, such as those containing aloevera. “This trend serves as validation of our belief that catering to health-conscious consumers is increasingly important in today’s market.”

“It’s evident that our consumption of wellness products has increased significantly, reflecting a heightened awareness and understanding of wellness. People are now more inclined to undergo medical checkups, research healthy eating habits online, and monitor their macronutrient intake. This increased accessibility to knowledge, coupled with the availability of wellness products, has fueled the growing demand for such items,” explains Ashraf.

He observes that mindful eating and living have become ingrained in society, transcending social class barriers. Regardless of income level, people are increasingly opting for healthier choices such as vitamin C supplements or dark chocolate. This shift underscores a broader societal movement towards prioritizing health and wellness.

Reflecting on this trend, Gulshan highlights Wellness Forever’s commitment to socially relevant foods through practices like farm-to-field approaches, including the production of bean-to-bar chocolates. The aim is to shift customer perceptions towards trusting the store’s selection based on its reputation for quality, similar to how renowned global stores are trusted for the products they carry.

He mentions the growing interest from customers in these products during their store visits. “We prioritize socially relevant, locally preferred and health forward products in our merchandising strategy. We choose to partner with brands and companies that produce genuine quality products and are customer favorites.”

Looking at the growing demand for healthy products across the country, primarily fueled by aspiration, Wellness Forever ensures that within each store, there’s a subtle encouragement to make healthier choices. For instance, its stores highlight options like protein powder and protein bars, which is a way to nudge customers towards selecting healthier alternatives over unhealthy ones.

With approximately 45% of its sales currently coming  from the non-pharmaceutical section, which includes food, Wellness Forever anticipates this ratio to shift significantly in the future. “Looking ahead, we anticipate that the wellness category will continue to expand, possibly reaching 65% or even 70% of the market share within the next three to four years. However, this transformation will unfold gradually, influenced by various factors,” states Ashraf.

Best Sellers in Healthy Food

Gulshan discusses various examples of companies and products that exemplify the shift towards healthier lifestyles. He mentions brands like Health Aid, Fast & Up, The GoodBug, Centrum, The Whole Truth, MuscleBlaze and Yoga Bar, which offer nutritious food options. He also mentions Kapiva, which has disrupted traditional markets with ayurvedic products.

This shift towards healthier alternatives represents a significant behavioral change among consumers. Additionally, he highlights clean beauty brands like MamaEarth, Plum and derma brands like CeraVe, Novology, Derma Co. and Cetaphil as examples of companies promoting wellness in skincare.

Through its diverse range of health-conscious offerings and subtle nudges towards healthier choices, Wellness Forever is actively contributing to the creation of a healthier community. It has started referring to its fast-moving consumer goods as ‘fast-moving health goods,’ in an attempt to subtly encourage people to prioritize health products over medicines. “While we don’t claim to be instigating a social change, we’re at least facilitating it from a supply-side perspective,” avers Ashraf.

He offers an example of how Wellness Forever is contributing towards healthier living and well-being by addressing supply-side dynamics. “We have positioned our business as a facilitator of positive change. Through our operations, we are enabling access to products and services that can potentially impact societal well-being. We have extended our product lines to include offerings that cater to the evolving preferences of consumers towards healthier options.”

Ashraf points out that not long ago, products like dark chocolate were unfamiliar to most consumers. “Until even three to four years ago, dark chocolate consumption was minimal compared to the present. However, there is now a significant increase in the consumption of dark chocolates, ranging from 60% to 85% cocoa content.”

He says that even traditional companies like Cadbury and Amul have discerned the escalating consumer interest in wellness-oriented goods, exemplified by their introduction of products such as Bournville and Amul Single Origin dark chocolates, respectively. “In alignment with these evolving market dynamics, our product offerings aptly mirror the burgeoning trends within the Health & Wellness industry.”

Consumers Spends on H&W Products

Ashraf says that the global wellness category has witnessed remarkable expansion, with its market size soaring to approximately $5 trillion post-Covid. By 2025, India is expected to contribute around 3-4 percent to this thriving market. In fact, according to Numr Research – an Indian market research firm – India’s 443 million millennials spend an average of INR 4,000 per month on health and wellness services and products.

The younger generation, typically aged 20 to 30 years, often frequents the stores for socializing and partying, where they might purchase snacks or chocolates, indicating a different lifestyle need compared to older age groups. Additionally, there’s a notable segment of female customers who purchase personal hygiene products, along with items for mothers and babies, forming another significant category of clientele at Wellness Forever.

Reflecting on how consumers respond to the higher prices of health and wellness products compared to conventional ones, Gulshan says that consumers who invest in wellness products typically share common characteristics. They prioritize health, have disposable income, and often belong to a younger generation that values experiences and creativity over traditional notions of wealth. Brands recognize this shift and aim to offer premium experiences rather than simply selling products.

Emphasizing that people not only consume products but also lifestyles, he illustrates this by explaining that when choosing a shampoo, for example, buyers at his stores consider not just its qualities but also its packaging and how it aligns with their lifestyle. “They are naturally drawn to products that resonate with their lifestyle preferences, even if they come at a higher price.”

He compares this phenomenon to shopping for clothing, noting that someone may prefer a more expensive shirt from a prestigious brand like Arrow over a cheaper one from a different store, even if the actual difference in quality is minimal. This preference is driven by the desire to align with a certain lifestyle associated with the brand.

Ashraf explains that when it comes to purchases related to personal health and well-being, individuals don’t mind spending more money. For instance, they may opt for a shampoo that promises better hair shine and bounce, even if it comes with a higher price tag of INR 600. He notes that people are willing to expand their budgets for products like hair and face creams that offer significant benefits to their skin or hair. “When it comes to personal appearance and lifestyle enhancement, individuals are inclined to invest more in the wellness category.”

The Road Ahead

At present, Wellness Forever is directing its attention exclusively to the four states in which it operates. This strategic choice stems from the belief that pharmacies and wellness stores designed to cater to customers’ needs are not bound by geographical constraints; rather, they exist as sources of convenience accessible to all.

“We have made a conscious decision to expand in areas adjacent to our current locations. This approach facilitates easier management of supply chains, training, and monitoring. Therefore, aside from strategically planned opportunities, we intend to grow exclusively within these four states for the foreseeable future,” states Gulshan.

In terms of funding and investment support, Wellness Forever is backed by a formidable consortium comprising high net-worth individuals (HNIs) and influential family offices. Among its notable backers are luminaries such as Adaar Poonawalla, renowned for his visionary leadership of Serum Institute of India, Rajiv Dadlani, recognized for his astute investments and entrepreneurial acumen, and the Thakral family hailing from Singapore, known for their strategic business ventures spanning diverse industries.

Furthermore, the consortium boasts the patronage of the Allana Group, a prominent conglomerate with a rich legacy in the Middle East. This alliance not only signifies a deep-pocketed financial backing but also underscores a shared vision for fostering growth and innovation in the healthcare and wellness sector.

Apart from the backing of powerful investors, Wellness Forever recognizes the indispensable role of entrepreneurs in driving business growth. The retailer has now embarked on the next phase of its journey and business growth: Taking its store count from 400 to 1,000. To achieve its goal, it aims to build on its franchise network through its Entrepreneurial Development Program (EDP).

“We firmly believe that local entrepreneurs possess a profound understanding of their communities, which enables them to deliver exceptional customer service. By nurturing entrepreneurship and empowering first-generation entrepreneurs, we seek to enrich the business landscape while fulfilling our social responsibility in a sustainable manner,” says Gulshan.

Expressing further support for the franchise model, particularly in India, Gulshan argues that instead of assuming that the market will be dominated either by small independent businesses (mom and pop) or by large corporations, there should be a more inclusive approach. He advocates for a hybrid model that combines the strengths of both franchising and independent ownership.

He also mentions the brand’s approach to optimizing various aspects related to Fast Moving Consumer Goods. The brand will focus on employing more innovative strategies in planogramming, ensuring the right setup, and maximizing visibility for its health and wellness products. In essence, Wellness Forever will sharpen its focus on streamlining FMCG operations to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

As part of its FMCG action plan, the 24-hour retailer has been phasing out less healthy options and replacing them with healthier alternatives. “This transition will take time and it emphasizes our commitment to the journey towards offering a morehealth-conscious selection to our customers,” says Ashraf.

Discussing the future of the Health & Wellness format, Ashraf highlights its potential as a model where pharmaceuticals are integrated with the wellness segment. He believes it’s a promising journey where wellness will increasingly intertwine with pharmaceuticals. Over time, he and his two business partners foresee that this integrated model will prove to be one of the best approaches for the future. “Overall, the trajectory towards a stronger wellness category is clear and it signals promising growth opportunities across the sector.”

As the Health & Wellness category continues to expand and evolve, Wellness Forever continues reshaping the benchmarks of pharmacy and lifestyle retail through its expanding footprint and reputation for exemplary service and quality. In the records of business, the story of Wellness Forever will stand as proof of how shared dreams can transform into an inspiring reality through friendship, vision, and a commitment to excellence. Even as the journey of Wellness Forever progresses, Ashraf, Gulshan, and Mohan have already stamped a legacy that will last for generations.

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