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Electronic couponing programs, now primarily limited to the supermarket checkout lane, are moving to a new area of the grocery store: pharmacies.

A new computerized program marketed by HealthCare Data Corp., called Medi-Link Point-of-Care Coupons, is linking over-the-counter and prescription medications by printing out coupons for companion OTC products along with a consumer's prescription.

The system is testing this month in its first supermarket chain, Wakefern Foods Corp.'s ShopRite, along with pharmacy giant Drug Emporium.

For OTC drug marketers, the system offers an window for increased sales; for supermarkets, in addition to a savings in labor hours, it promises a bigger share of the OTC sales pie dominated by drugstores.

It debuts in a total of 13 stores between the two chains in New Jersey and Ohio, in a three- to six-month test. But Medi-Link is targeting 3,000 stores by June 1996 and hoping for a total of 25,000 to 30,000 within five years.

"Part of our task," says Medi-Link President Robin Foote, "is to research and identify the relationships that exist between prescription and OTC drugs."

For example, some antidepressants cause dry eyes as a side effect, making that an ideal marketing opportunity for OTC eye drops. At least, that's how eye products maker Allergan sees it. Allergan is participating in the program for its Refresh Plus and Selluvisc brands.

"Pharmacy is an untapped resource for us," says Amy Carver West, consumer marketing director for Allergan. "Pharmacists make five to six eyedrop recommendations a week."

Other advertisers signed up for the test include Johnson & Johnson, SmithKline Beecham and Warner Wellcome. None of these marketers would name the brands involved in the test.

For harried pharmacists, the system also makes life easier in complying with OBRA '90 (the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, effective since '93), which requires pharmacists to counsel consumers on side effects and proper use of medications.

Along with coupons, Medi-Link prints out a single page that combines lengthy information on the prescription, along with warning labeling stickers for the bottle and a receipt.

"We've felt for a long time that a computer database can provide an economic and efficient means to provide counseling," says Mr. Foote.

Wakefern is counting on Medi-Link to help swing sales of OTC products from drugstores to its supermarket.

"The problem in the past is that shoppers have not thought of OTC purchases in our food stores," says Dan Ramirez, VP-pharmacy division. "We want to further strengthen the perception of pharmacy as part of our stores."

Mr. Ramirez says the average supermarket pharmacy does $1.4 million a year in prescription sales.

"There is a greater potential for much better OTC sales" with Medi-Link, he says, although he declined to give a sales target.

The 169-store chain in the Northeast has 103 in-store pharmacies.

Drugstores see the system as a sales builder and a labor-saving device. Drug Emporium began its test in early April and "the pilot is working very well," says Scott Hughes, director of pharmacy systems. "Customers are loving it and the staff is excited, too. There's a productivity savings; my guess is a 10% time savings."

Following the test, Drug Emporium expects to roll Medi-Link into all 105 of its company-owned stores this year, according to Mr. Hughes. He added that the program would also be introduced at the end of July to the 108 franchise stores, though he has already received calls from franchisers representing up to 25 stores wanting to become involved.

"We think the coupons will help us build our business," says Mr. Hughes, adding, "There are people who shop and don't know we have a pharmacy. And we've probably got pharmacy customers who don't make the most of our OTC products."

The main attraction for drugmakers is reaching shoppers at the point of sale.

"Targeting is a benefit to manufacturers," says Glen Griffiths, director of sales promotion at J&J's McNeil Consumer Products.

Medi-Link also may not be the only technological new kid on the block for pharmacies. Cardinal Health has a product called HealthTouch-currently in 1,200 drugstores and the Meijer supermarket chain-that has similar characteristics.

HealthTouch is a freestanding interactive kiosk, positioned at end-aisle, and it provides details on medication and answers general health questions. OTC brands are offered as solutions for some ailments and a printout of all information is made at the end, which includes coupons.

Advertisers include Allergan, Schering-Plough Corp. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.

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