💉 vaccinations as customer acquisition

pandemic shoppers is lob-lame

(That’s an example of price discrimination). Hot tip: a good way to learn public policy is to do a table read of legislation [with your friends on Zoom]. How am I? I am currently reading the Competition Act every other Wednesday for one hour. It’s more challenging than I expected.

With competition on my mind, I thought it might be a good time to check in on Loblaw. By my count, the corporation has almost 70% of the allocated vaccination space to pharmacies in Ontario. That’s not all that startling, as they dominate the pharmaceutical landscape in Canada, and I believe COVID vaccination allocation was partially predicated on the flu vaccine volumes. What’s intriguing is the possibility that pharmacies across Ontario may be under-pricing the vaccination at $13/pop - in Manitoba, it’s something like $20.

Shopper’s was also prominently featured in the Premier’s Twitter announcement. 😉

It is somewhat unsettling that vaccination is also a customer acquisition opportunity for the new PC Health App. The app launched in many provinces last fall, and I’ve previously written about how Loblaw’s points economy for private-health data follows Big Tech’s playbook.

Not illegal by any means but certainly predatory. Most of all, it’s just…gross. 🤢

Imagine you *had* to download Facebook in order to get the flu vaccine, sign up for TikTok to get immunized against tetanus, or activate Twitter to protect against pertussis.

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It would feel super weird, because these are platforms that monetize the data of their users and distort advertising markets. While it’s certainly handy to get a text message when you are able to book your vaccination, it would be better - much more equitable and fair - if there was a province-wide mobile application that connected Ontarians to an appointment at the pharmacy closest to them. Will people that signed up for the app notification be privileged with quicker bookings?

A little while ago, the New York Times has described how Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon are among the companies offering the government assistance with logistics and operations. Of course the Canadian version is Loblaw (!). While Loblaw Companies Limited and Shopper’s Drug Mart are a productive part of the Creative Destruction Lab’s Rapid Screening Consortium, rather than just support the government with implementation, the company can also recruit users of their health app. It’s a business opportunity in the shrouded guise of public health, and I hate it. 🥸

Having these sign ups creates another data advantage for the company - they can gauge sentiment regarding the vaccine and also use this information to direct where the vaccines go themselves.

This is just about pattern-recognition and connecting the dots. Loblaws’ ~invitation~ to download their PC Health app in order to book your COVID-19 vaccination is a blatant and boring abuse of our trust in the public health care system.

Chatting with smart friends online (the only way to sense-make in the pandemic, am I right, ladies?), it was suggested that the Broader Public Service Accountability Act should extend to health service providers.

Generally, the “Broader Public Sector” refers to the organizations that receive funding from the Government of Ontario. They are not, however, a part of the government itself.

You could consider the PC Health App as a vaccination platform of sorts. Delivering a vaccine appointment is a “health service,” and if we’re [so] cool with the private sector helpfully delivering this, then we should call PC Health and Loblaw and Shopper’s a “health services provider” and make them subject to the transparency and accountability requirements for those services.

We should consider this type of health service provider as part of the broader public service.

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You can read more about the laws that support accountability and transparency in the broader public service here.

👀 What else has Loblaws been up to?

  1. Selling its food-making division.

  1. Continuing to experiment with selling other products online, like: office and school supplies; apparel and accessories; patio, BBQ & garden, and more. Does anyone know of a massively popular website that sells everything to you?

  1. They are also getting attention for the Amazon-esque receipt of government funds while posting record profits.

  1. Also, there was a glitch and chips were not available online. I also found this alarming, but not as alarming as coercing people to download your health app so they can book a vaccination in a pandemic, you know?

Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.