Who would go online to order vitamin supplements or acne cream when you can find a drugstore in almost any strip mall? Going by the success of Well.ca, Canada's first online-only pharmacy, plenty of people.
Founded in 2006 by CEO Ali Asaria in his parents' basement in Guelph, Ont., Well.ca is the perfect solution for consumers who have difficulty getting to a pharmacy, due to mobility or transportation issues or because they simply don't have the time. Well.ca also appeals to individuals looking to buy personal items—like condoms or adult diapers—without having to stand in line or run them by a teenage cashier. And with 60,000 products in stock, Well.ca offers a wider selection of items in niche categories the major chains don't carry. Delivery times can vary, depending on location, but, Asaria says, most orders arrive "the next day or the day after."
Well.ca saw its revenue jump by 553% in its first two years of operation (good enough for 19th spot on the 2009 PROFIT HOT 50 ranking of Canada's Top New Growth Companies). Since then, Well.ca has received a $1.1-million infusion of capital from a group of angel investors and $3 million from venture-capital fund iNovia, moved into a bigger office in Toronto and expanded its workforce to 100. Asaria says his company now boasts hundreds of thousands of customers. For bricks-and-mortar retailers, Well.ca stands out as a stark warning that, no matter how entrenched a retail brand or segment may be, an online retailer can appear suddenly and lure away customers.
Well.ca got plenty of media attention last spring, when it held a "pop-up store" event at Toronto's Union Station, the country's busiest transit hub. The "store" consisted of a series of floor-to-ceiling photos of products sitting on shelves, and commuters were invited to download the Well.ca app and scan the products' QR codes with their smartphones to place an order. The event was meant both to get the Well.ca name out and to showcase this innovative new retail format. "You could just see the awe in people's faces, in terms of imagining the future," Asaria says.
Although the success of companies like Well.ca is significant, says retailing expert Anthony Stokan, Canadians still love the experience of going shopping. To tempt shoppers away from the mall, says Stokan, an online player has to offer significant value: "When a consumer thinks about purchasing pretty much anything online, their No. 1 motivation is 'Am I getting it at a better price than other people?'"
Well.ca is cheaper on some items, but tends to be in line with in-store pricing. That's why Asaria still relies on great customer service to keep customers coming back. The toll-free number is easy to spot on the home page, calls are answered on the first ring and customers get "thank you" notes for their orders. As innovative as Well.ca strives to be, Asaria knows that some things in retailing never change.