Updated March 23 at 10:49am

The research whiz behind CVS’ ExtraCare card

By Sarah Parsons
Contributing Writer
More than 66 million Americans carry red, plastic ExtraCare cards with them virtually every day. These scannable cards allow shoppers to receive coupons and rewards when they purchase products at CVS Caremark Corp.’s more than 7,000 retail outlets throughout the U.S.

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The research whiz behind CVS’ ExtraCare card


More than 66 million Americans carry red, plastic ExtraCare cards with them virtually every day. These scannable cards allow shoppers to receive coupons and rewards when they purchase products at CVS Caremark Corp.’s more than 7,000 retail outlets throughout the U.S.

While most Americans are familiar with CVS’ ExtraCare cards, few know one of the main people behind this widely popular program.

Meet Bari Harlam, the senior vice president of pharmacy-benefits management at CVS Caremark. The 49-year-old mother of three managed the 10-year-old ExtraCare rewards program from concept to execution and beyond. She now ranks as one of CVS’ leading experts in researching and developing customer-loyalty programs.

“She does incredibly groundbreaking things,” said Melissa Studzinski, CVS Caremark’s vice president of relationship marketing. “She’s absolutely able to make change and get the organization to do things very differently.”

Harlam wasn’t always a big name in the corporate world, though. In fact, she barely set foot in a corporate office before she joined CVS Caremark in 1998. After earning her master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Harlam spent the majority of her career in academia. She taught marketing at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and then at the University of Rhode Island. Throughout that time Harlam’s research focused on customer loyalty and behavioral economics. In other words – what makes consumers keep coming back to specific stores and products?

Harlam loved teaching, but listened when the corporate world came calling during her sabbatical. “CVS was testing ExtraCare and trying to decide if it was a good fit,” Harlam recalled. “I was already involved in research on how customer-loyalty programs influence consumer behavior and choice.”

Harlam’s background and availability made her an ideal fit for CVS’ infant ExtraCare program, and she started consulting with the company in 1998. Then in 2000 – about six months before ExtraCare was set to launch nationwide – CVS offered Harlam a full-time position overseeing the rewards program. It was then that Harlam’s career reached a major turning point.

Harlam turned down the job at first. “I really loved my academic life, and I was flattered, but I thought I would stick to what I had been doing for the last 12 years,” Harlam said.

But as she helped interview candidates for the position she was offered, she realized that the job was perfect for her. She came back to CVS executives and said she would like to head up the ExtraCare program.

Harlam’s success with CVS Caremark shows that she made the right choice. The company launched ExtraCare nationwide under Harlam’s direction in April 2001. Since then, it’s grown exponentially: By September 2001, more than 40 percent of CVS Caremark’s customers had signed onto the rewards program. Today, more than 66 million Americans carry ExtraCare cards.

Harlam stepped into a new role in April 2010 as CVS Caremark’s senior vice president of pharmacy-benefits management member experience. Harlam now focuses on making it easier and cheaper for folks to get their prescriptions, by developing initiatives like automatic refill programs.

A major part of Harlam’s new role involves researching why people with chronic illnesses stop refilling their prescriptions. By applying behavioral-economics principles to this study, Harlam hopes to boost patients’ adherence to their medications and help them live healthier lives.

“I’m focused on helping members achieve the best behavior so they can have lower costs and better health,” she said.

According to her colleagues, part of what makes Harlam a strong leader is her ability to think outside the box.

At one point, Harlam was working on a project on the future of pharmacy care. Rather than relying on a brainstorming session or published research, as many corporate execs would do, Harlam took the project a giant step further: She dispatched one of her colleagues to the Amazon to study how shamans deliver medical care to their tribal members.

“At all times, Bari has her head up looking at unusual solutions,” said Rob Price, CVS/pharmacy senior vice president of marketing and advertising.

Price added that the Amazon research shed some interesting light on universal proofs about how people wish to be cared for.

“She’s a big dreamer, and she’s willing to get her hands dirty,” Studzinski said.

Spend a few minutes talking to Harlam and you’ll realize the true breadth of her dreaming. The executive hopes to use CVS Caremark as a platform to improve not only the pharmacy business, but the health care industry at large.

“We want to help lower health care costs and improve health outcomes in ways that are focused on our patients,” Harlam said. “That means continuing to understand what it is that matters to them and what their barriers are so we can develop the best products, services and communications to help our consumers do what it is they want to do.” •


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