Once upon a time there were two pharmacies on Mill Lane. They were about 200 metres apart. But not for long.
Aqua Pharmacy, at 102 Mill Lane, is planning to move to 59 Mill Lane, which has been occupied by Escott’s upholsterers for many years. This would bring it just 10 doors away from T. K. Impex pharmacy (81 Mill Lane). T.K. Impex isn’t happy. The move is planned for May/June.
At stake would seem to be the trade from patients walking back from the West Hampstead Medical Centre on Solent Road. Once, those that turned left would probably go to Aqua for their prescriptions and those that turned right would go to T.K. Impex. Aqua’s impending move means it becomes the nearest option for everyone coming up from Solent Road.
Sanjay Patel, the Aqua pharmacist, has owned the chemist for the past three years. He insists that there is nothing sinister behind his desire to relocate. Worried about ever-increasing rents, and with the lease about to expire on his current premises, he took the opportunity to buy the freehold on the Escott’s building in order to have more control over his business. Mill Lane may appear to have many empty ground floor units but the reality is, one local estate agent told us, that few landlords are willing to sell their freeholds at the moment.
The Escott’s unit is about the same size as Aqua, he says, and he has ambitious plans to modernise it and improve his shop’s offering and customer experience. From his point of view, this is a sensible way of protecting his business. The advantage of being a freehold owner is, he says, “the only driver for the move”, and his intention is not to take business away from anyone else.
Kim Khaki has run T.K. Impex for more than 30 years, and is unhappy with Aqua’s proposed move. He views the relative newcomer as a threat to his business and feels Aqua will have an unfair advantage because it will be the first pharmacy people see when turning onto Mill Lane from Solent Road. Aqua’s new premises is also very near the post office and bus stops, so he is worried that patients may go there for the convenience factor.
He also expressed concern that having two pharmacies in such close proximity is “not adding any value to the West Hampstead community” of which he feels very much a part.
T.K. Impex, somewhat confusingly, is also known by its trading name of H. V. Thomas (the name of the previous owner who ran the pharmacy for 45 years before Kim took over). It is, however, testament to the current owner’s personality and dedication that despite the various names above the door, the shop is known to its regular customers simply as “Kim’s”. He does seem to have an extremely loyal client base of his own, with some customers signing a petition to protest against Aqua’s application to move closer.
Indeed, Kim is proud of the longstanding relationships he has built up with patients, and the personal service he and his staff provide. On our visit to the traditional-looking chemists, a steady stream of customers arrived for prescriptions, advice, or just a chat, including eminent local historian Morris Beckman who, at 94, has been a regular visitor to the shop for many years.
Sanjay certainly believes that regular customers tend to remain loyal to a particular pharmacy, having built up a trusting and personal relationship, sometimes over many years. He expects Aqua’s regular clientele to follow it down the road to its new address and, likewise, for the regular users of T. K. Impex to keep going there. He is keen to emphasize that he “will not be changing the patient base”.
Kim accepts that there is little he can do to block the move, but feels that it goes against an unwritten pharmacists’ code of conduct. Any pharmacy move needs regulatory approval but as Aqua is moving only 140 metres and will continue to provide the same services, it will almost certainly be deemed to be a “relocation which does not result in significant change” to local patient groups.
Kim, however, asserts that as well as damaging his business, Aqua’s relocation will inconvenience patients at the other end of Mill Lane, who will now have to walk farther. He believes it would make more sense for Aqua to relocate in the other direction, as the nearest chemist’s that way is far away on Manstone Road off Cricklewood Broadway.
Sanjay counters this by pointing out that Kim’s chemist is nearer to the Cholmley Gardens GP practice, so patients there will continue to take their prescriptions to their regular chemist. He is confident that there are enough customers in and around Mill Lane to support both businesses, and that as they offer different services and products, they will each keep their regular clientele.
Will this be a case of “let battle commence”, or is it more likely that each pharmacy’s loyal customers will stick with what (and whom) they know?