As a local small-business owner who recently celebrated 10 years in business, Carolina Pharmacy co-owner Chi Patel has always struggled with how to spread the word about his company, and the pharmacy’s recent addition of rapid COVID-19 testing made that struggle all the more urgent.
With six locations and a seventh set to open in South End in the second half of 2021, Patel has continuously contemplated how to make Charlotteans aware that his company exists. It’s a relatively small-scale operation, as each of his locations is staffed by a pharmacist and just three to four technicians. Going up against national corporations like CVS or his former employer Walgreens is a constant uphill battle.
One recent attempt at promoting his pharmacy’s rapid COVID-19 testing program, however, showed Patel why all engagement isn’t always good engagement.
Carolina Pharmacy offers rapid testing
In late November, Patel and Carolina Pharmacy got into the COVID testing game, offering rapid tests that turned around results in 10 minutes, which could be hard to find elsewhere in Charlotte.
Patel had left Walgreens to start his own pharmacy a decade ago after becoming frustrated with the corporation’s lack of attention to customer service. He saw rapid testing as a way to bring Carolina Pharmacy’s personal touch to a pandemic that required all hands on deck.
Numerous patients had requested COVID-19 testing at the site, and Patel, whose son is severely immunocompromised after being diagnosed with leukemia in May 2020, thought the tests could also be helpful for him and his staff members to ensure the safety of everyone at his pharmacies.
Before Thanksgiving, Carolina Pharmacy began offering rapid antigen tests for $120, accepting insurance reimbursements and payment by Medicaid or HSA/FSA accounts. The demand was high for rapid tests, which are harder to come by than the lab tests offered at free county sites that take 48 to 72 hours for a result.
In fact, the demand was higher than Patel envisioned and soon overwhelmed his independent pharmacy.
Doctors at Atrium and Novant facilities began referring their overflow of patients to him, as they were focused more on testing and treating patients who had already been confirmed positive. He eventually hired off-duty nurses from the two health-care providers and nursing students from Wingate University to help administer tests.
“We started doing it with our patients pretty quickly,” he recalls, “and we were using our own staff to do it. Then quickly I started to realize there’s people coming from all over Charlotte, from Rock Hill, everywhere, that are not even our patients. So how do I help these people? There was no sort of marketing, there was none of that, I don’t even know how to do that.”
In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Carolina Pharmacy saw a huge increase in rapid-test referrals. It spiked again after each holiday, but has begun to dwindle since, which Patel hoped was a good sign. Yet he saw that COVID-19 cases weren’t decreasing by any measure and wanted to continue to help. But how could he get the word out?
“We developed our brand organically, through word of mouth, through relationships. I never had the budget to go market on TV or pay some big fee,” Patel says. “There’s nothing really out there to help small businesses that will actually help.”
When a mutual friend suggested that Patel talk to Miranda Mounts, a food influencer who runs the @wheretoeatcharlotte Instagram account and has more than 26,000 followers, about a potential social media campaign promoting the pharmacy’s rapid-testing program, he thought, “Why not?” They had offered friends free tests in the past for similar posts.
“Anyone we’ve ever used for any of these things, they’re either our friends or people who know us in a certain way,” he says. “We say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come get a test from us? You can record it and show people your experience.’ I don’t think there’s a single thing wrong with that. None of these people have been paid.”
A promotional post provokes a response
Patel spoke with Mounts, offering a $400 payment to promote his pharmacy’s testing services, as he didn’t want to ask a stranger to work for free. She turned down the payment proposal, instead offering to donate it to Lucan’s Lions, a charity for Patel’s son.
On the first weekend of the new year, Mounts posted a series of videos on an Instagram Story in which she gets the test from her car (and receives negative results). She also put up a post that plugged their partnership and promotion: a giveaway for free rapid tests to eight @wheretoeatcharlotte followers who liked the post, followed her account as well as @carolinapharmacyarboretum, and tagged a friend in the comments.
“Let’s prevent the spread in 2021!” the post began. It stated that winners would be announced on Monday, Jan. 5. The promotion wouldn’t make it that far, however.
The post pretty quickly provoked a backlash. The optics of an influencer dangling free testing in front of followers (and surely being paid to do so) didn’t sit right with many people. The comments began to roll in. Some criticized Mounts and the pharmacy for charging for testing when there are many free sites available (none of those are rapid-testing sites), and others had a problem with Mounts seemingly profiting off of a public-health crisis.
Then again, some people just have a problem with Mounts herself. In fact, Queen City Nerve named her Worst Influencer in our recent Best in the Nest issue due to insensitive comments she made about Mexican and Asian people in 2020 (which may have been part of the reason she did not respond to requests for comment for this story).
The criticisms spread around local social media channels, with screenshots of Mounts’ picture from the post — which shows her standing in front of a Carolina Pharmacy door dressed in full PPE — being shared on Facebook and Twitter.
That night, Patel returned home from a trip to the St. Jude clinic at Novant Health’s Hemby Children’s Hospital with his son and wife to find an inbox full of vitriol.
“All the sudden we got back from St. Jude, I’m getting all these messages,” he recalls. “I’m not really on any site except Instagram, I don’t really know about Twitter or anything, but people are texting me and saying, ‘These guys are dogging you about using an influencer for this.’”
He tried replying to a few disparaging posts from his personal Instagram account to explain his side of the story, but the responses were overwhelming. Mounts took the post down before a winner could be announced. The idea for a social media campaign was scrapped.
Looking back, Patel says he couldn’t have imagined the blowback that would come from his first try at hiring a social media influencer. Just days later, when asked what lessons he took from the experience, it’s clear he’s still confused by it all.
“I learned that I’m very naïve to it,” he says. “I spend all my time on what I’m doing to help my patients. I don’t know, and that’s the hard part. What are my resources? What are my options as a small-business owner who is a peanut in a big world? We’re nobodies to most people, so how do I really find out who to use or who to get help from? My most transparent answer is I don’t know.”
He’s considered what missteps he might have made, speculating that perhaps he should have found an influencer familiar with the health-care industry, or suggesting he could have linked to free testing sites for uninsured folks who can’t afford a rapid test, but for the most part, Patel is ready to leave the incident behind him.
It’s unlikely we’ll see much more influencer marketing coming from Carolina Pharmacy, and for Patel, the sooner the whole rapid-testing program can be shut down the better. Until then, however, he’ll continue to offer the service to whomever books an appointment.
“The revenue [from rapid testing] is minimal; it’s the same as what we make on the average prescription,” he says. “But the thing is to help people, and still be able to stop this. Our mission is for this to stop.”
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