Finchley: Cootes the Chemist

How Cootes succeeded where Boots feared to tread

By Sue Walder

Cootes Pharmacy is a trusted local brand and has been a fixture of Ballards Lane for the past five years and of the High Road, East Finchley for more than 25 years. Both shops were former branches of Boots that had failed to turn sufficient profit. So – what’s the secret of Cootes’s success?

According to Alnoor Thobhani, who with his wife Pina owns and runs this thriving local business, there are three key factors.

We provide a high level of customer service, we create a good environment, and we offer a range of other healthcare services on-site, such as homeopathy and chiropractic clinics,” he says.

Importantly, both Pina and I are qualified pharmacists and do not use locums, so we provide a seamless and consistent service. In addition, we own the freehold to both premises so we have greater control and flexibility to adapt the business as we see fit.

“We know our limitations. We are not an internet business and we try to focus on doing a few things really well.”

Mr Thobani and his wife graduated from the University of Wales in Cardiff in 1978, and after a couple of years in Canada they returned to the UK and bought their first shop in East Finchley, a Boots pharmacy that was no longer profitable.

In 2004 the second shop in Ballards Lane was also purchased from Boots, and after investing in extending and refurbishing the premises, as well as increasing the range of healthcare services provided, the business has done well.

“Boots’s strengths lie in its extensive IT infrastructure, the loyalty card and having its own big brand name and niche products,” says Mr Thobani.

“When we first opened in N3, customers would still present their Boots loyalty cards and end up leaving their basket of goods.

“However, Boots didn’t provide a good level of personal service and the Ballards Lane shop was looking shabby. On top of this it was losing thousands of pounds’ worth of stock due to pilfering, which was seriously eroding their profit margins.”

In 2006, aware that customers were looking for value for money, the Thobanis introduced the Cootes Pharmacy privilege card.

“This has really helped us to develop the business further,” says Mr Thobani.

“Unlike the Boots loyalty card, we don’t need extensive IT to operate the scheme. On presenting the card, customers receive an immediate discount of 5% on purchases of less than £20, and 10% if they spend more than £20.”

As well as offering on-site healthcare services, the rear of the Ballards Lane premises is rented out to a GP’s surgery, which operates completely independently of the pharmacy.

The past few years have proved particularly busy for the Thobanis. Just after they opened the Ballards Lane shop they bought out another failing business – Cory Pharmacy in East Finchley. They spent two years redeveloping the site, which is freehold, while still running their existing business just down the High Road. In 2007 they finally moved in.

We had run out of space in our existing shop on the corner of Leicester Road, and as we only leased these premises we decided to purchase the Cory Pharmacy, which came freehold,” says Mr Thobani.

We took a risk as the new shop is at the quieter end of the High Road, but our staff and customers are happy so it has worked well for us.

And they must be doing something right, as not only did Mr Thobani receive a Barnet Civic Award in 2007 but last year the Cootes Pharmacy in East Finchley was one of three finalists in the 2008 Pharmacy Retailer of the Year awards run by a pharmacy wholesaler.

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