Secret Shopping in Spain

So a few weeks ago, the Merseyside Skeptics Society set a piece of homework for their listeners which involved going to a pharmacy to ask about homeopathic remedies for a friend’s cough, to see whether they’ll sell you them or not. Homeopathy is widely advertised at pharmacies in Spain, so I decided to go and see how a pharmacist would react to such a request.

Homeopathy advertised in one of many pharmacies in Malaga

So I went in with a spiel that I sort of learnt. It didn’t matter if it sounded like it was learnt because they’d know I wasn’t a native speaker, but I basically said that my friend has a very bad dry cough and that his normal medicine isn’t working. He doesn’t speak Spanish so he asked me to go to the pharmacy for him. We don’t know anything about homeopathy but we were thinking that maybe it might help.

Now I didn’t want to actually buy any remedies, because I was planning on going to several different pharmacies (and besides, if I wanted sugar pills I’d go to the sweet shop), so at the last minute I’d say I’d return with my friend so that he can describe his symptoms more accurately than I can.

So I went to 5 different pharmacies in the city centre of Malaga. 2 of them had advertisements for homeopathic medicine on the outside of the pharmacy, and the other 3 did not. The first one had it advertised, so I went in, gave my spiel, and she picked a bottle of pills off the shelf behind her and scanned them before I could say anything. So I said “don’t you want to know anything more about the symptoms?” and she said something about a cough being a cough basically. Now I don’t know if the hour-long consultation normally associated with homeopathy really does make it work more, but the lightning-fast ‘consultation’ that I got in the pharmacy (I’m tempted to say it was a homeopathic quantity of consultation but I think it’s been overdone a bit, that one) definitely had the opposite effect and I was quite taken aback, so I said I’d be back the next day and left. Big cross for her, she was gagging to sell it.

The next one didn’t have it advertised so I went in and asked and the guy pointed me over to a shelf at the back with a book next to it, with no comment whatsoever. Presumably I was supposed to self-diagnose and then look up my own symptoms to find the appropriate remedy. I had a look through the book but it was really big and I’m lazy (plus making head or tail of most pseudoscience is difficult enough in English), so I put a big cross next to Pharmacy No. 2 (mainly for poor customer service, humph) in my book and made my way to the third one.

The third one didn’t have advertising either, and when I went in and gave my spiel, the man behind the counter said that they didn’t have any homeopathic remedies. So I decided to add another question for this eventuality, and asked why they didn’t have it. He said he wasn’t a qualified homeopath. I suppose that’s fair enough, that’s the responsible thing to do if you don’t know anything about it. I can only assume the last pharmacist didn’t know anything about it but still sold it, since he literally didn’t give me a single word of advice. Quite impressively, this pharmacist said I should take my friend to the doctor because it could be a symptom of an underlying condition. He got a big tick, just as soon as I’d wiggled my way out of buying the bottle of real medicine he then tried to sell me.

The fourth pharmacy did advertise homeopathic products. After I’d said my piece, the pharmacist walked me over to the shelf where they had lots of bottles of white pills and asked me a few more questions about the symptoms of my friend’s cough. Now I didn’t have too big of a problem with that. Yes, they were selling sugar pills for money, but at least they wanted to know about the symptoms, presumably to check they weren’t too serious. So, a mini cross for them.

The last one was my favourite. It had no advertising, so I went in, gave my spiel, and the pharmacist said they didn’t have any. Following previously established procedure, I asked why, and he said “well, it doesn’t work”. I shook his hand, told him what I was up to and gave him a big tick. So quite a varied response really.



2 Responses to Secret Shopping in Spain

  1. Joe Jordan says:

    Not very scientific really. What would have been more interesting would have been if you have done a comparative study to see what conventional options the same pharmacists would have offered in terms of advice or of treatment off the shelf. No doubt the variation would have been of equal disparity. Still, just as you admit you are not a homeopath, you are not a scientist either I suspect.

  2. grammarking says:

    It was never supposed to be scientific, and you’ll notice I didn’t draw a conclusion. 5 pharmacies wouldn’t be statistically significant anyway, so I don’t see what your point is. The only reason I did this was to see if a pharmacist would sell me something that has no evidence of efficacy. Still, some people just like being smarmy I suspect.

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