Aster DM's healthy growth with online pharmacy launch

Aster DM Healthcare is turning to e-commerce, looking to squeeze growth at its chain of pharmacies amid a saturated market for health-related retailing in the UAE.

The company on Monday launched Aster Online, its e-commerce venture that sells health and wellness products.

The online portal also has a call centre with a video chat option for customers who may need to speak with a pharmacist.

Aster DM hopes to begin selling prescription drugs online when regulatory approval is granted in three to six months.

“This is a sales channel for the future and we thought we had to be the first in the space,” said Jobilal Vavachan, the chief executive of Aster Pharmacy, which has 180 outlets in the UAE. “This is a long-term investment with a return-on-investment horizon of 10 or so years.”

Diana Jarmalaite, a retail analyst with Euromonitor International, said the sector in the UAE is saturated. It is forecast to register only 2.5 per cent sales growth until 2020.

“The pharmacy sector only grows with population growth and we do not see growth in that area soon,” she said. The sector grew by 3.5 per cent from 2014 to last year with 1,571 outlets open.

“The new insurance required for all employees in Dubai will also inhibit the pharmacy market as insurance schemes will control what is sold,” she said.

Aster Pharmacy said its annual sales growth in the past three years was 24 to 25 per cent and on Monday opened its 200th store in the region, in Al Mankhool, Dubai.

Dr Azad Moopen, Aster DM Healthcare’s chairman, also said on Monday that the group was looking to float within this financial year. He said Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London and India are being considered for the IPO.

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