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OTCs in E-commerce

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Internet retailing is the fastest growing distribution channel for over-the-counter (OTC) consumer health products worldwide. Consumers are increasingly moving toward the use of digital platforms for convenience and speed in delivery, which fit consumers’ busy and stressful lives. That said, e-commerce still represents only a very small proportion of total OTC sales, and manufacturers have been slow to adjust how they market and sell OTC products online away from strategies rooted in their longstanding store-based retail approaches.

Globally, the e-commerce market for OTC drugs is very small, representing only USD2.5 billion in 2017, just 2% of the total OTC market. This represents less than 5% of sales that occurred though the largest distribution channel, chemists and pharmacies, at USD48.8 billion.

Yet despite the small size of the e-commerce channel, the speed at which it has grown in recent years has led many pharmaceutical companies to question whether this channel will disrupt what has been a fairly soft market for OTCs. Though most companies haven’t seen the price pressures they feel from bricks and mortar outlets balanced by a market shift to e-commerce, that could change, and companies are already preparing for what the market would look like if that does occur.

E-commerce growing quickly, but represents only a small fraction of overall OTC sales

Internet sales of OTCs are still only a very small proportion of total OTC sales. While digital purchases are in general growing very quickly, OTCs have been slower to move into this space for two main reasons: first, consumers are used to buying OTCs at bricks and mortar outlets, and changing longstanding habits takes time; second, the need for OTCs is reactive. Consumers don’t purchase them ahead of time because they don’t plan to fall ill, and when they do need them, they need them immediately.


Some OTCs may be more or less likely to fit the e-commerce delivery model

The proliferation of direct delivery services has given consumers the option of having medicines delivered to them within a delivery window of as soon as an hour in many metropolitan areas in the US. However, it’s unclear how many consumers are likely to utilise this option given the immediacy of their particular need, and the widespread availability of the bricks and mortar outlets with which consumers are already familiar.


Germany leads the way

One exception to these trends is Germany, where digital purchases of OTCs have exploded over the past 20 years. A number of factors have contributed to this growth, including the fact that Germany allows Rx drugs to be shipped via mail, the option of having drugs delivered from a neighbouring country at much lower cost, and the commitment of direct-seller DocMorris to fighting the legal battles necessary to gain control of the German e-commerce market.


E-commerce sales offer strong potential for future growth

The global market for OTCs is generally static, and what new market space there is for OTC products is occurring through online channels. While the space here is still small, it is an easy space to move into, and it is in manufacturers’ best interests to learn how to sell effectively online, or risk getting left behind in the future.

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