Farmasiet: The 2020 insider story of Norway’s biggest online pharmacy

Farmasiet is Norway’s biggest online pharmacy, and has – to put it mildly – had a busy year. Thanks to its free same-day delivery in the greater Oslo area, Farmasiet emerged early on during 2020 as a critical enabler of safer delivery of prescription and pharmaceutical products, attracting a significant portion of Norwegians looking to engage in social distancing and especially those aged 55+. Together with Eline Stockstad Fjell, Investment Professional at Verdane and Farmasiet board advisor, we sat down with the company’s CEO Hans Kristian Furuseth, a 32-year old e-commerce veteran, to look back at 2020.

It’s been a very busy year! Tell us a little about the status of the business before the pandemic and how the events that unfolded in 2020 impacted you.

Frankly, we were a little lucky on timing – we successfully rebranded to Farmasiet in late October 2019, in the lead-up to March we added free delivery for prescription orders throughout the Oslo region via Porterbuddy (editor’s note: a Verdane company since December 2020), and on March 2, TV advertising campaigns we had previously booked started airing. Norway officially entered lockdown on March 12. Our March Rx-sales were roughly five times those of the same period last year. If you remember, at the time no one really knew how the situation was going to develop in Europe. Being digitally native gave us a distinctive edge in that capacity because we were able to see what was going on a little bit sooner than everyone else. Norway entered lockdown on a Thursday, and by that time we had already engaged extra pharmacists to come into the office starting Friday to support our existing staff. We have definitely been quick to adapt, plan and replan as we go along. We don’t do ten-year plans, but continuously think ahead to try and understand what the key events in three to six months will be.

For example, we changed our IT system and logistics setup to simplify administration and get our products out quicker. We didn’t know what was going to happen in Europe, but based on what we saw in China we believed some key products were probably going to have their supply disrupted. Therefore, we bought extra inventory to shore up supplies and I am confident Farmasiet was the only pharmacy in Norway that did not run out of paracetamol earlier this year. I am no longer working evenings and weekends in the warehouse, but doing that sort of work definitely helps you identify areas for improvement too. A simple but effective thing we did was to place larger orders to get them delivered in bigger boxes, which cut warehouse processing times.

Overall, I think the pandemic has shown Norwegians the extent to which Farmasiet is a disruptive force benefiting society. That’s definitely useful when you’re working in a highly regulated market like the one for pharmaceuticals. When you’re a disruptor, consumers, regulators and the market aren’t going to be used to whatever it is you are doing, so being intentionally aware of how you are disrupting the market can play an important role in creating better preconditions for your business at large. Having enabled safer and faster delivery of prescription drugs to the groups most at risk of dying from COVID-19, the authorities may be more willing to try to understand aspects of your business that disrupt legacy business models or ways of doing things. Having that holistic view of how your actions all fit together to create the perception of your business as a positive disruptor is something we try to make sure to have.

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Being digitally native gave us a distinctive edge in that capacity because we were able to see what was going on a little bit sooner than everyone else.

And in the face of such a massive increase in demand, how do you keep your employees motivated?

For one, the pandemic has really highlighted to everyone across the organisation what an important role Farmasiet plays in society. Today even more than before. Even before the pandemic, our pharmacists helped twice the number of people that a normal pharmacist in a physical location would. It’s also a disruptive way of making products available at a cheaper price and greater convenience both to elderly people, who can now be offered safer access, and for families with young children that desperately need the time for other things. I think knowing that we offer an essential service makes a big difference. Although I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call us purpose-driven, I would definitely say that COVID-19 has helped us put what we do into context.

There was this 87-year old customer, who wrote in her review that “finding Farmasiet was the best thing that ever happened to her”. Sharing stuff like that makes a big difference when you maybe work in front of a screen all day and don’t necessarily get to see the faces of all the people you help.

Looking into 2021, what key milestones can you share that Farmasiet will focus on?

We’ve seen a strong improvement in customer loyalty this year, and are currently putting a few initiatives in place that we think will improve customer loyalty even more. Of course, continuing to deliver an even better service – like when we launched free same-day delivery for prescription drugs back in February. The way we measure the impact of that is through customer loyalty.

Last question – what has been the most fun this year?

Working in the warehouse with Eline. Never thought I’d see you in our warehouse!