Drugstore Chains vs. Big-Box and Grocery Store Pharmacies
The drugstore tends to be the default source for some of the items we use most frequently -- toothpaste, shampoo, medication -- but a grocery or big-box store may be a better place to buy these products. We visited pharmacy departments at Kroger, Target*, and Walmart along with CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid in the same Dayton, Ohio, market area. We were interested in cost, of course, but also in selection, convenience, customer service, and other reasons a frugal consumer might choose one of these vendors over another.
We started our comparison with a four-prong shopping list, obtaining the prices for 10 immunizations, 10 common generic prescription drugs, 20 common over-the-counter drugs and vitamins, and 20 personal-care and beauty items. Although the factors we assessed may vary from location to location, and even visit to visit, we consistently found that stand-alone pharmacies charged more than mass merchants, although rewards programs and store-brand products may help narrow the price gap. Drugstores such as CVS and Walgreens also offer a wider selection of products within their niche and have an edge in customer service.
This comparison does not include two types of retailers that may offer significant savings on prescription medication: independent pharmacies, where prices vary widely by location, and warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam's Club. Membership clubs are required by law in many states to fill prescriptions for non-members, but consumers must pay to join if they want to purchase other merchandise, including several items in our comparison, or participate in Costco's prescription discount program. The membership fees are worthwhile for many consumers, but not all.
*CVS acquired Target pharmacies in late 2015. While prescription and immunization pricing are the same, we considered the two stores separate entities for our price comparisons of over-the-counter drugs and personal-care/beauty items.
Price.Pharmacy departments within big-box stores and supermarkets are typically cheaper than drugstores. We compared full retail prices for 10 generic prescription medications commonly substituted for pricier name-brand drugs including Lipitor, Plavix, and Zoloft. The total bill at Walgreens, the most expensive store, was more than twice as much as the total at Kroger, the cheapest: $885.32 at the drugstore vs. $435.83 at the grocery store, a difference of about $450. With a total of $512.93 for these same drugs, Walmart also undercut the stand-alone pharmacies.
Note that the prescription prices in our comparison reflect out-of-pocket costs assuming no insurance coverage for prescription drugs -- otherwise the prices would depend on the insurance company and plan, not the pharmacy. All the drugstores we visited accept "most insurance." Prices we obtained also don't reflect discounts from prescription savings programs. Walgreens' $20-a-year Prescription Savings Club can bring down prices for customers without insurance. Rite Aid and Kroger have or participate in similar prescription savings programs, and there is no annual fee to join. Walmart has a robust list of $4 generics automatically offered to any customer paying out of pocket, no membership necessary.
*30-day supply unless otherwise noted
For immunizations, there was a difference of more than $300 between CVS, the most expensive choice, and Walmart, the cheapest. We looked at per-dose, out-of-pocket pricing for 10 vaccines commonly available at pharmacies or in-store clinics, including flu shots. Keep in mind that insurance plans may cover some or all of the cost of immunizations, but if you're paying out of pocket, it pays to shop around. For example, a high-dose flu shot for seniors was nearly $70 at Walmart and Rite Aid but about $60 at Walgreens and Kroger. For the Hepatitis B vaccine, the difference between the highest and lowest available prices was about $85.
|Flu shot (seasonal)|
|Flu shot (high dose)|
|Hepatitis A (adult)|
|Hepatitis B (adult)|
|Pneumococcal (Prevnar 13)|
*Per-dose average (first dose is $249.99, second and third dose are $214.99)
To compare prices on common over-the-counter medications and vitamins, we looked at 20 items including brand-name favorites such as Advil, Claritin, Prilosec OTC, and Abreva. Prices were much higher at CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid than at Walmart and Target. There was about a $75 difference between CVS, the priciest store in this category, and Walmart, the cheapest. It wasn't uncommon for the stand-alone pharmacies to be at least $2 or $3 more expensive for any given item. A 10-count box of Claritin, for instance, was $9.82 at Walmart and $11.99 or $12.49 at the drugstores. Kroger tended to fall in the middle; for example, it priced the Claritin at $10.69.
|Centrum Silver Vitamins (100 ct.)|
|DayQuil Cold & Flu (24 ct.)|
|Mucinex DM Expectorant and Cough Suppressant (20 ct.)|
|Advil (24 ct.)|
|Pepto-Bismol (16 fl. oz.)|
|Infant Tylenol (2 fl. oz.)|
|Prilosec OTC (42 ct.)|
|Abreva Cold Sore Treatment (2 g)|
|Rogaine Hair Regrowth Treatment (men's foam, 3 mos.)|
|Afrin Original Nasal Spray (.5 oz.)|
|Flonase Allergy Relief (60 ct.)|
|Delsym Cough Suppressant (5 oz.)|
|Claritin Non-Drowsy Indoor/Outdoor Allergies (10 ct.)|
|Children's Tylenol Chewables (24 ct.)|
|Cepacol Extra Strength Sore Throat Lozenges (16 ct.)|
|Orajel Severe Toothache and Gum Relief (.33 oz.)|
|Excedrin Migraine (100 ct.)|
|One A Day VitaCraves (70 ct.)|
|Pepcid AC Original Strength (30 ct.)|
|Plan B One-Step Emergency Contraceptive|
The story was the same for personal-care and beauty items: Walmart and Target were much cheaper in this category, although Kroger mounted stronger competition here. CVS was priciest again, with more than $55 separating it from Walmart, the cheapest option. Again, price differences on individual products were substantial. Shoppers could pay $11.99 for a 3-ounce tube of Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch sunscreen at CVS or Walgreens, or about $7.50 at Target or Walmart.
|Tampax Pearl (super, 36 ct.)|
|Secret Clinical Strength Solid (1.6 oz.)|
|Skintimate Shaving Cream (7 oz.)|
|Listerine Ultraclean (500 ml.)|
|Eucerin Original Healing Body Lotion (16.9 oz.)|
|Head & Shoulders Classic Clean (13.5 oz.)|
|Clairol Nice 'n Easy Hair Color|
|Softsoap Antibacterial Soap (11.25 oz.)|
|Revlon ColorStay Overtime Lip Color|
|CoverGirl Full Lash Bloom Mascara|
|L'Oréal True Match Blush|
|Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Moisturizer (1.7 oz.)|
|Always Ultra Thin Pads With Wings (regular, 36 ct.)|
|Sensodyne Pronamel Toothpaste (4 oz.)|
|Depend Fit-Flex (women's small/medium, 19 ct.)|
|Band-Aids (Flexible Fabric, 100 ct.)|
|Chapstick (cherry or original, 3 ct.)|
|Neosporin Original (0.5 oz.)|
|Mederma Advanced Scar Treatment (0.7 oz.)|
|Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 30 (3 fl. oz.)|
Store Brands.All six retailers sell generic versions of several items on our list. These in-house brands are consistently cheaper than the name-brand equivalents at the same store, and are more prevalent at stand-alone pharmacies. For instance, instead of buying a 24-count pack of DayQuil Cold & Flu at Rite Aid for $9.99, you can buy a Rite Aid version for $6.99. However, the grocery and big-box pharmacies also offer their own store-brand versions of popular items, and they're typically even cheaper. For instance, Walmart's DayQuil copycat is $6.02 and Kroger's is only $4.49.
Rewards Programs.While big-box and grocery pharmacy departments boast lower prices overall, sales and discounts from loyalty cards are more prevalent at stand-alone pharmacies. We didn't include sale prices in our analysis, because there's no guarantee a product will be available at a discount at any given time, but these programs can provide significant savings and benefits for shoppers.
For instance, using a CVS ExtraCare card the day we surveyed prices would have dropped the price of Depend incontinence underwear from $14.99 to $11.99, and spending $25 on incontinence or digestive health products would have earned $5 in rewards toward a subsequent purchase. Additional benefits included 2 percent back in rewards for every purchase made with an ExtraCare card. Walgreens' Balance Rewards card gives customers access to similar deals. One example: $2.50 off Delsym cough suppressant and 3,000 points (convertible to $3 in rewards) on a purchase of two select cough and cold products. At Rite Aid, customers with Wellness+Plenti loyalty cards can access card-only sales and "buy one, get one 50% off" deals or earn points that can be converted to savings at Rite Aid, AT&T, Macy's, and Exxon and Mobil gas stations. Customers also may get additional rewards for filling prescriptions or getting immunizations.
Rewards aren't solely the domain of drugstores. Kroger shoppers with Kroger Plus cards can also reap discounts and earn fuel points that convert to money off fill-ups at Kroger or Shell gas stations. And while Target discontinued its pharmacy rewards program when it was bought out by CVS, customers with ExtraCare cards can receive $5 Target coupons for every 10 prescriptions filled.
Selection.It may come as no surprise that drugstores carry a better selection of pharmacy and personal-care products than mass merchants, especially when it comes to store brands. Among the retailers discussed here, CVS boasted the largest inventory. The store we visited dedicated one entire side of an aisle to shampoo and conditioner, plus half an aisle to specialty/salon brands. The number of specialty hair-care products alone was equivalent to the entire selection at Kroger, Target, or Walmart. Pickings were slimmer at Rite Aid compared with the other drugstores, namely in beauty and personal care. Whereas CVS offered dozens of options in women's disposable razors, for instance, Rite Aid had only a few.
Convenience.Many shoppers will choose a store that's closer to home over one that is cheaper, particularly if they need only a few items. And there's no denying the appeal of value-added services or one-stop shopping.
All the pharmacies we visited offered conveniences such as automatic prescription refills, text/phone/email reminders, home delivery, and online prescription management. Drive-thru or curbside prescription pickup has become another common perk and was a feature at every store we visited except Walmart and Target. As for in-store walk-in health clinics, CVS far outpaces the rest with more than 1,100 clinics nationwide. Overall, it's the largest pharmacy in the nation, with more than 9,700 locations. Walgreens is a close second, with more than 8,100 locations and 400 clinics, and is poised to leapfrog CVS once it completes a planned purchase of more than 1,900 Rite Aids. Rite Aid is a distant third, with 4,600 stores, and scarcely registers on the health-clinic scale, with only about 100 RediClinic locations nationwide.
Pharmacy-related benefits are similar everywhere we looked, but other services and types of merchandise vary in availability and convenience. At the drugstores, photo services, movie rental machines, ATMs, and a small selection of grocery items are available. Still, drugstore chains don't offer the sheer range of products available at Kroger, Walmart, and Target. The mass merchants are one-stop shops.
Customer Service.One disadvantage of turning to a mass-merchant pharmacy is that the closest employee available to offer assistance isn't necessarily assigned to the pharmacy. At Walmart, for example, we had trouble locating an item, and the first employee we spotted worked in another department. She was kind enough to locate a pharmacy employee, but that extra step took up valuable time. During our visits to stand-alone pharmacies, we were approached almost immediately upon entering. At Kroger, Target, and Walmart, by contrast, we had to seek out assistance, and the only pharmacy employees we saw were behind the counter. Although easy to spot, they were less accessible than those at the drugstores.
Despite our observations, it's worth noting that Rite Aid, Walgreens, and CVS were among the bottom-dwellers in a 2016 survey of consumers' experiences at the nation's leading pharmacies. Walmart also didn't rate well. Kroger and Target fared better, but shoppers ultimately preferred independents and smaller regional chains. Costco also received high marks.
In a recent survey of customer satisfaction by J.D. Power, grocery store pharmacies led the way with the highest average marks, followed by stand-alone pharmacies, then mass merchants. Kroger ranked highest among the stores in our comparison, and the CVS pharmacies inside Target stores also scored an above-average rating.
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