Thursday, April 28, 2011

Walgreens versus CVS!

NOTE: This is an update on a posting I started last year but never completed.

Ladies and Gentlemen!  On this corner, on any Main Street in Anytown, USA, long-time America's drugstore, Walgreens!   And literally, on the diagonally opposite corner, on the same street, the up and coming kid, CVS!  You both know the rules!  Shake hands and return to your corners and... get ready to compete in the marketplace!

Capitalism is an interesting phenomenon.  And nowhere is this more true that in the drugstore wars.  They have been going on for some time now, with many of the lesser opponents being dealt a knock-out blow.  Small chains and independents were K.O.'ed in the first round, many of the indy's leaving the ring feet-first.  And some may lament this passing and say the fight was rigged, that the kid took a fall.  But on the other hand, maybe he didn't have a choice.

Rite-Aid was getting woozy after the last round.  Recently they announced they would merge with a food chain and try another tactic.  They are stepping out of the ring, so to speak, leaving the last two men standing.

And standing they are.  In nearly every major city and town in the USA, at least on the East Coast, both Walgreens and CVS have been building drug stores - like mad.  And in most cases, they have build right across the street from one another.  This is nothing short of a declaration of all-out drug store war.  And at the end of the day, one man will be left standing, and the other will be laying on the floor of the ring, spitting out their bloody teeth and wondering what happened.

Who will win this fight?  It is hard to tell.  Both stores sell similar products at similar prices.  Both stores have similar subscription drug plans, albeit with different rules.  Both stores offer the same level of crummy service - and horribly badly designed websites that are nearly impossible to navigate.

And there is the key to who will win the drugstore wars.  The first pharmacy to realize that the service makes all the difference in the world.

Let's go a few rounds with these heavyweights and see who ends up the winner - and who ends up KO'ed:

ROUND 1:  Prescription Plans    CVS has a pharmacy discount card, but good luck finding it on their impossible-to-navigate website.   I even called their 1-800 number and the person on the phone had no idea what I was talking about.  They have a similarly named ExtraCare program, but that is merely a Customer Loyalty program that give 2% off on most in-store purchases.  There is an annual fee of $15, and prescriptions for generic drugs, 90-day supply, are $11.99.  and you get discounts on products you buy, as well as the flat rate on prescriptions.

Walgreens charges $20 a year, but only $9.99 for the prescriptions.  At Walgreens, you get a 10% discount, but only on Walgreens-branded items, and the discount is applied to your NEXT PURCHASE, not to the purchase you are making, which is a bit odd.  But if you don't mind buying store brands, this can be a pretty good deal.

Total cost to me at CVS, $51 a year, Walgreens, $60 - advantage CVS.  However, the Walgreens plan would be more lucrative if you have multiple generic prescriptions.  Plus when Walgreens has a better savings plan on store-branded items.

So it is a tie here.

ROUND 2:  In-Store Customer Service  If you get a Walgreens discount card, have fun with it.  Because actually using it is a nightmarish pain in the ass.  When you go to the register, make sure you whip it out FAST before the brain-dead employee starts scanning, because they will have to "void" the entire transaction and start over if you want to use your Walgreens discount card.  And yes, this requires the manager, so the line backs up and everyone starts making nasty comments behind you in line.  Even the person at the register will say snide remarks.

If the person at the register even RECOGNIZES the card, you are lucky, because brain-dead Becky will give you a blank stare and say "I've never seened one of them before!" and once again they have to call the manager up front. When the manager comes up front, she will look you over as if you shoplifted something, sigh, and then act like you ruined her day by using this card that the store promotes.  I mean, I'm sorry I darkened your door, bitch!

Even if you just try to buy something simple, and pay cash for it, the regular way, it takes 15 minutes to get checked out of a Walgreens.  Can anyone explain this to me?

But the same is also true at CVS.  For some reason, in both of these drug stores, it takes more time to ring up the sale of cough drops than it takes to buy a load of lumber at Lowes, or three carts of groceries at Wegman's.  What is up with that?

The pharmacy people can be just as bad.  I go to pick up my prescription. "$17 please" she says.  What about the $9.99 per the prescription savings card?  "Well, you didn't say you wanted that!"  You can't have both the prescription savings AND your insurance!"  Well, I'm not trying to do that! "Well which do you want?"  Gee, I don't know, $17 or $9.99?  Which do you think?  They look at you like you robbed a bank and treat you like a felon.  I just LOVE going to Walgreens and being treated this way!

I haven't tried CVS yet, so it is hard to call this one.  However, the first drug store to offer better service will win this round, as otherwise their prices and products are largely interchangable.

Round 3:  The Internet  People today are using the Internet more than ever - and this is not a "fad" that is going to go away.  The prize goes to the first store to totally embrace the Internet and make a site that is easy-to-navigate, easy-to-use, and easy-to-understand.  And you have to "get" the Internet and not engage in a lot of paranoia and make the site so hard to use that you have to go to the store to activate it.

UPDATE:  Of course today, which company "gets" mobile is also part of the picture.   And from what I am seeing, it doesn't sound like either CVS or Walgreens are doing well in this area.

Both contenders here have taken a wild swing at each other - only to punch themselves in the face.  Both are down on the mat, and the ref is counting.  But if they both have K.O.'d themselves, is it really a tie?  Or do they both lose?

Finding the CVS drug plan on their site takes a bit of doing - you are better off Googling it than trying to access through the CVS site - and that is a sure sign of an overwrought, crappy site designed by an advertising agency.  Walgreens is little better, asking you to "log in" or "pick a store" before they will even tell you about the plan (WTF?  Harvesting demographics?).

Signing up or renewing the plans is problematic.  As I noted in a previous post, the Walgreens site won't let me renew, unless I want to get a new card and wait 14 days.  CVS offers to allow me to print a temporary card right away (advantage: CVS) and mail one later.  But when I try to use the sign-up for the site, it bombs out and says "try again later" and no one seems to know why, nor is any explanation proffered.  Advantage, Walgreens, only because a crappy site that works is better than a good site that is broken.

Both could do better with less hype, animation, advertisements, and other HTML fluff.  Accessing basic items should be the order of the day.  I can only think that the prescription savings plans are a money-loser for them (offered only to counteract Wal-Mart) so they don't promote them very heavily.

The winner of this round?  Walgreens, but not by much.

Round 4:  Telephone Service  Both Pharmacies offer telephone 1-800 numbers.  Unfortunately, CVS has separate numbers for its customer loyalty program and for the pharmacy division and the prescription savings program.  I called CVS to ask why I could not sign up for their customer savings program online and they had no clue why.  I asked about the prescription savings program and the lady didn't even know what that was.

Walgreens answered the phone quickly and explained their asinine policy of forcing me to visit the store to renew my savings plan.  They provided quick accurate information, even if I didn't like the answer.

So, at the end of round 4, advantage Walgreens.

* * *

So both of these heavyweights are playing rope-a-dope in the ring, swinging wildly and getting some good hits in, but both are leading with their chin.  They are so concentrated on knocking each other out, they are not defending themselves very well.  All it will take is for some third party to step in the ring to take the both out, and be declared the winner.

And who could that be?    Possibly Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart has a prescription savings plan that will mail prescriptions to your door, free of charge, so you don't have to loiter around a smelly old Wal Mart all day long.   Plus, they have a $4 a month or $10 for 90 plan, with no signup fee.

This means they beat Walgreens by $20 and CVS by $11 for generic prescriptions.
And since you can set up for home delivery - and automatic renewal of your prescriptions, you can avoid having to go to the pharmacy every three months - and don't have to worry about running out of pills.

Plus, the Wal-Mart website is remarkably easy to navigate and use - far more transparent than CVS or Walgreens - and they don't seem to be trying to hide their prescription plan, but rather are boasting about it.

Target also has a similar plan.

So the question becomes, not which drug store will win the drug store wars, but perhaps which Discount Store SuperCenter might end up winning.  Both Walgreens and CVS have aggressively opened up new stores across the country - sometimes two or three stores in a single town. Clearly, both cannot prevail in such a limited market.

Perhaps neither will.

UPDATE:  The Wal-Mart site bombs out, too, when you try to sign up and transfer a presciption.  In order to transfer a prescription, you first have to have a prescription with Wal-Mart.  Curiouser an d Curiouser.

Winn Dixie doesn't have a program, but will match WalMart's Plan Prices.  Their website is about as user-friendly as Wal-Marts, although it did bomb once (what is up with THAT?) although the second time, it let me on.  It does not display PRICES, so I had to CALL IN the prescription to the pharmacy.  Now that it is done, however, I can renew it online, and since we shop there anyway.....

Is the drug store as we know it a Dinosaur?  The only people I see in there are alcoholics buying the cheap beer.

They are creepy places, to be sure....

* * *
UPDATE: December 2014 - Winn Dixie was the winner early on, but now wants an annual $25 fee to participate in their drug plan. In addition, the cost of a three-month supply went from $9.99 to $15.99. Time to look into Wal-Mart perhaps?

* * *

UPDATE:  November 2015 - I transferred to Wal-Mart and it has its share of good and bad. Bad was the fact that I could not get prescriptions mailed to me, at least for a while, due to some regulatory issue Wal-Mart was struggling with. Good was that once I set up the prescription, it was no hassle to pick it up - even at another Wal-Mart in another part of the country.

Even better was the pharmacy calling to remind me my prescription was about to run out and should they go ahead and refill it? Smart move on their part, as it got me to go to the store, where I am sure they are hoping I would buy $150 of groceries.

Wal-mart can afford to use drugs as a loss-leader to get warm bodies into the store, where they will hopefully decide to buy a loaf of bread or a bicycle or a car battery or a new pair of glasses. CVS and Walgreens do not have such a synergy - they have non-drug items, but a very limited selection and prices that are not as competitive.

The drug store wars go on, with no sign of a winner yet. But I think in the end, as health care costs escalate, Wal-Mart may be the ultimate winner.

They even have a drive-through pharmacy at the new "neighborhood market" Wal-Mart!

Looks like "the kid" has some good moves!

UPDATE 2020:  I now buy my prescriptions online from - $18 for a three-month supply, automatically renewed, no hassle, low cost.   Walmart cancelled their savings plan, so much for that!    As for non-prescription things like vitamins, we go to Walmart, the wholesale club, or recently, online (eBay, Amazon, Walmart) and found prices generally cheaper.

The online thing is really the bomb, if you have a regular prescription.  No waiting in line, and automatic refills and whatnot.

So the winner is... The Internet!

Note that when I started this posting, many years ago, the pharmacy here on the island had closed.  The local (independent) pharmacist explained to me that he could not beat the prices at Walmart or Walgreens or CVS and what's more, he could not keep many medicines in stock, particularly expensive ones that expired regularly.   He was losing money on my prescriptions!  Fortunately, he was near retirement age and cashed it in when they tore down the shopping plaza.  Small independent pharmacies are a dying breed!