Drugstore Chains vs. Big-Box and Grocery Store Pharmacies
Cheapism compared out-of-pocket prices at the country’s largest chain pharmacies — CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart, Target*, and Kroger. Here’s what we found:
- Consumers looking for the cheapest pharmacy are better off shopping in the pharmacy departments at big-box and grocery stores than at the big-name pharmacy chains.
- In our survey of prescription drug prices, Walmart and Kroger undercut the major drugstores by a wide margin. Walmart is also the cheapest place to buy many over-the-counter medications.
- When we compared prices on a range of vaccinations, including seasonal flu shots, Walmart was, again, the cheapest option.
- For personal care and beauty products, Target has the edge.
- Stand-alone pharmacies do offer some perks. Convenience, additional amenities, selection, rewards programs, and customer service make chain drugstores competitive despite higher prices.
*CVS Pharmacy 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.
Prescription Drug Prices
|Atorvastatin Calcium (Lipitor)|
|Flu shot (seasonal)|
|Flu shot (high dose)|
|Hepatitis A (adult)|
|Hepatitis B (adult)|
|Pneumococcal (Prevnar 13)|
Over-the-Counter Medication/Vitamin Prices
|Centrum Silver Vitamins (100 ct.)|
|DayQuil Severe 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 (.07 oz.)|
|Rogaine Men’s Foam (3 mos.)|
|Afrin Original Nasal Spray (.5 oz.)|
|Flonase Allergy Relief (.34 oz./60 sprays)|
|Delsym Cough Suppressant (5 oz.)|
|Claritin Non-Drowsy Indoor/Outdoor Allergies (10 ct.)|
|Cepacol Extra Strength SoreThroat Lozenges (16 ct.)|
|Orajel Severe Toothache and Gum Relief (.33 oz.)|
|Excedrin Migraine (100 ct.)|
|One A Day VitaCraves Women’s/Men’s (70 ct.)|
|Pepcid AC Original Strength (30 ct.)|
|Plan B One-Step Emergency Contraceptive|
Personal Care/Beauty Product Prices
|Tampax Pearl (super, 36 ct.)|
|Secret Clinical Strength Solid (1.6 oz.)|
|Skintimate Shaving Cream (7 oz.)|
|Gillette Venus Tropical Disposable Razor (3 ct.)|
|Listerine Cool Mint (16.9 oz.)|
|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|
|Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Moisturizer (1.7 oz.)|
|Always Ultra Thin Pads with Wings (46 ct.)|
|Sensodyne Pronamel Toothpaste (4 oz.)|
|Depend Fit-Flex (women’s small, 19 ct.)|
|Band-Aids Flexible Fabric (100 ct.)|
|Chapstick (cherry or original, 3 ct.)|
|Mederma Advanced Scar Treatment (0.7 oz.)|
|Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 70 (3 fl. oz.)|
Comparing Pharmacies: Savings, Rewards, Selection, and More
We surveyed prices on more than 300 items: 13 common generic prescription drugs, 19 common over-the-counter drugs and vitamins, nine immunizations, and 19 personal care and beauty products at each of the six pharmacy stores in our comparison. All store locations were in the same western Ohio market area. Of course, there’s more than pricing to consider when deciding among nearby pharmacies. We also took into account selection, convenience, customer service, and other reasons that even the most frugal consumer might choose one of the more expensive pharmacies.
Although some of the factors we assessed may vary from location to location, and even visit to visit, we consistently found that the stand-alone pharmacies charged more for everyday health and personal care products and services than the grocery and big-box stores. For cost-conscious yet time-pressed consumers who like the idea of shopping for groceries and getting a flu shot or filling a prescription in one stop, this finding is significant. At the same time, drugstores like CVS and Walgreens offer a wider selection of the products within their niche, and rewards programs and store-brand products help narrow the price gap.
This comparison does not include two types of retailers that may offer considerable savings on prescription medication: independent pharmacies, where prices vary widely, 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.
While dedicated pharmacy stores are often the default choice for prescription drugs, we found that Walmart and Kroger were by far the least expensive places to fill prescriptions for 13 generic medications commonly substituted for pricier name-brand drugs like Lipitor, Plavix, and Zoloft. The total bill at Rite Aid, the most expensive place to fill prescriptions overall, was just over twice as much as the cost at the Walmart pharmacy, which had the cheapest prescription drug prices in our survey: $670 for the entire list vs. $1,342 at the drugstore. With a total of about $688 for the same drugs, Kroger also undercut the stand-alone pharmacies, charging 37% less than CVS, the least expensive of the pharmacy chains, for the generic drugs on our list.
Note that the prescription drug prices in our comparison reflect out-of-pocket costs to fill prescriptions assuming no health insurance coverage — otherwise the prescription prices would depend on the customer’s insurance plan, not the pharmacy. (All the stores we visited accept "most health insurance.") Pharmacy prices we obtained also don't reflect discounts from prescription savings programs, which can bring down prices for customers without insurance.
For example, we were told that members of Walgreens' Prescription Savings Club, which costs $20 a year for an individual and $35 for a family, would pay $65 for a one-month supply of Clopidogrel (Plavix) compared with $144 for shoppers without the savings card. Kroger has a similar discount program, the Kroger Rx Savings Club, that costs $36 a year ($72 for a family). It offers deep savings on nearly every drug on our list and even brought the price for several down to $0. Rite Aid Pharmacy has a free membership program that boasts many $10 generics, and Walmart has a robust list of $4 generics automatically offered to any customer paying out of pocket — no health insurance or prescription discount card required. CVS ExtraCare cardholders are not privy to direct discounts, but purchasing prescriptions at CVS Pharmacy earns rewards points toward ExtraBucks to be used for in-store purchases.
It’s worth mentioning that several pharmacy employees at the drugstore chains we visited pointed us toward GoodRx as a great place to shop around online and find the best prescription drug prices. GoodRx shows a list of the lowest possible deals available at local pharmacies and provides coupons that can be used in-store to claim those savings. A quick search for the generic medications on our list revealed that we could bring the full price at Kroger down to $295.42 (57% cheaper) by signing up for a free GoodRx prescription discount card. The total would be even less for consumers willing to shop multiple nearby pharmacies, or those with a warehouse club membership. Online pharmacy Blink Health also earns positive feedback from business and industry insiders for its low generic prescription drug prices and price match guarantee. Users can have medications shipped to their home, or have Blink fill prescriptions through participating local pharmacies.
Sometimes it’s simpler, and potentially cheaper, to take care of basic wellness needs, such as routine eye exams, health screenings, or vaccinations, at the local pharmacy rather than make an appointment with your primary care provider. While insurance may cover some or all of the cost of many healthcare services — particularly those considered preventive care — it definitely pays to compare prices if you’re paying out of pocket.
We looked at per-dose pricing for nine vaccines commonly available at pharmacies or in-store clinics, including flu shots. Again, Rite Aid was the most expensive choice and Walmart returned the cheapest prices in our comparison — a difference of about $327 for every shot on the list. Walmart claimed the lowest price for all but two of the vaccinations we checked (a high-dose flu shot for seniors, which was about $10 cheaper at Kroger, and a shingles vaccine, which was about $2.50 less at CVS). Rite Aid’s immunization costs were not always the highest but also never the lowest. In the instances where Rite Aid had the highest price, it was often far more expensive than the cheapest pharmacy. For example, Rite Aid’s high-dose flu shot for seniors was $77 compared with Kroger’s $60 on the low end. For a dose of Prevnar 13, which can help prevent pneumonia and is recommended for adults over 50, Rite Aid charged $70 more than lowest-priced Walmart.
Over-the-Counter Medications and Vitamins
To compare prices on common over-the-counter medications and vitamins, we looked at 19 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, Target, and Kroger. CVS, the priciest store in this category, was about 30% more expensive than Walmart, the cheapest, and it was common for the stand-alone pharmacies to charge at least $2 or $3 more for any given item. For instance, a small bottle of Flonase Allergy Relief spray was $16.99 at CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens, but it cost just under $14 at Walmart and Target. Kroger’s price, though a step above the superstores’, was still far below the pharmacy chains’, at $14.99. This was regularly the case.
Personal Care and Beauty Products
The story was similar for personal care and beauty products: Target and Walmart were much cheaper than the other stores in this category, although Kroger mounted stronger competition. CVS was priciest by a landslide, charging nearly 50% more for the entire list of 19 items than Target, the cheapest option. Again, price differences on individual products were substantial. Shoppers could pay between $24 and $27 for a tiny tube of Mederma scar treatment at CVS, Rite Aid, or Walgreens; the same product cost about $15 at Target or Walmart. Kroger tended to be on the pricier side for specialty skin care treatments like the Mederma, and for cosmetics, but more competitive for everyday personal care items like soap and toothpaste.
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 generic substitutions are more prevalent at stand-alone pharmacies. For instance, instead of buying a 24-count pack of DayQuil Severe Cold & Flu at Rite Aid for $12.99, you can buy a Rite Aid version for $5.99. However, the grocery and big-box pharmacies also offer their own store-brand versions of popular items, and they're sometimes even cheaper. For instance, Walmart's DayQuil copycat (which carries the Equate brand label) is just $2.98.
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 savings card the day we surveyed prices would have dropped the price of DayQuil from $14.79 to $9.99, and spending $20 on a variety of household, personal, grocery, baby, or cold care products would have earned $5 in rewards points toward a subsequent purchase. Several items on our list were also eligible for a buy-one-get-one-50%-off promotion. Walgreens' Balance Rewards card gives customers access to similar deals. One example: buy one, get one free Gillette disposable razor, plus 4,000 rewards points (equivalent to $4) with the purchase of four. There was an additional $3-off coupon available to card members online that could be redeemed in-store. CVS also has a CarePass subscription membership program that’s now available nationwide. For $5 a month ($48 per year) users get free shipping on online purchases, free prescription delivery, 20% off CVS Health brand products, and 24-hour access to a pharmacist helpline among other perks.
At Rite Aid, customers with Wellness+ loyalty cards can access card-only sales and earn rewards points toward silver status (10% off most store items for a year) or gold (20% off most store items for a year). Customers also may get additional rewards for filling prescriptions or getting immunizations. A Wellness65+ savings card extends special benefits to seniors, including 20% off non-prescription purchases on the first Wednesday of every month and a free consultation with a pharmacist.
Savings cards aren't solely the domain of drugstores. Kroger shoppers with Kroger Plus cards can also reap discounts and earn fuel rewards points that convert to money off fill-ups at Kroger or Shell gas stations. And while Target discontinued its pharmacy rewards program when CVS took over its pharmacies, customers with ExtraCare cards can still earn rewards points and receive $5 Target coupons for every 10 prescriptions filled (as long as one was filled at a CVS pharmacy within a Target store).
It may come as no surprise that drugstores generally carry a better selection of pharmacy and personal care products than mass merchants, especially when it comes to store brands. Of course, inventory varies from store to store within each chain, but among the retailers in our comparison, CVS boasted the largest selection. 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 than the other drugstores, namely in beauty and personal care. While CVS offered dozens of options in women's disposable razors, for instance, Rite Aid had only a few.
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.
CVS is the largest pharmacy chain in the nation, with more than 9,900 locations. As for in-store walk-in health clinics, CVS far outpaces the rest, with more than 1,100 MinuteClinics nationwide offering basic health services. CVS Health officials have also announced plans to expand the range of health services offered (blood draws are on the list) and establish 1,500 new HealthHub locations by 2021.
Walgreens is a close second overall, with roughly 9,560 locations but only 400 clinics. Rite Aid is a distant third, especially after Walgreens recently bought close to 2,000 of its stores, up to 750 of which Walgreens says it plans to close. Rite Aid now has about 2,500 stores and scarcely registers on the health-clinic scale, with a limited number of RediClinics in just a few states. However, a new initiative in select stores would experiment with introducing RediClinic Express kiosks, which would offer virtual care services using diagnostic testing equipment and live-video interactions with clinicians.
All the pharmacies we visited offered conveniences such as automatic prescription refills, text/phone/email reminders, home delivery, and online or app prescription management. Drive-thru or curbside prescription pickup has become another common perk and was a feature at every local store we visited except Walmart. Target has expanded its popular Drive Up option to all 50 states (although not every store). Time-pressed customers can place orders through the Target app and have employees bring the merchandise out to their cars upon arrival. An “I’m on the way” button in the app pairs with location services to help expedite the process.
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 to be found at Kroger, Walmart, and Target. The mass merchants are one-stop shops.
One disadvantage of turning to a mass-merchant or grocery-store pharmacy is that the closest employee available to assist you 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 valuable time. During our visits to stand-alone pharmacies, we were approached almost immediately upon entering. But at Kroger, Target, and Walmart 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.
In a recent survey of customer satisfaction by J.D. Power, CVS pharmacies inside Target stores scored above-average ratings among bricks-and-mortar mass-merchandisers, beat out only by Sam’s Club and Costco. Walmart fared the worst. Stand-alone CVS pharmacies and Walgreens scored slightly below average among chain drugstore pharmacies, while Rite Aid came in third, just behind two networks of independent pharmacies, Good Neighbor Pharmacy and Health Mart. Rite Aid’s high ranking was slightly unexpected, given its high prices. The dominance of the independent pharmacies, however, was not surprising: In-depth and personalized service underpins their popularity. Consumer Reports found the same when surveying shoppers.
Most stores note that they cannot accept the return of prescription medications by law. Cosmetics, over-the-counter medications, and health and beauty items may or may not be returnable. CVS, for instance, notes that it may deny refunds or exchanges for items that are opened, while Walgreens says the return of cosmetics is up to the store manager’s discretion. Target’s return policy specifically states that it will accept the return of most opened beauty items.
Rite Aid offers customers 90 days to make “hassle-free returns,” while CVS has a 60-day window. Walgreens is by far the stingiest of the three drugstore chains, offering just 30 days. Target and Walmart both offer 90 days, and Target extends that window to 120 days for Target REDcard shoppers and up to a year for all Target-brand products.
Kroger’s return policy is irritatingly vague, noting no official return window and mentioning that “some exclusions apply” without spelling any of these out. A Kroger associate confirmed that stores have wide latitude over when and whether to accept returns.
Walmart Pharmacy Review
- Lowest prices on prescription drugs, immunizations, and over-the-counter medicine in our survey; second-lowest prices on personal care/beauty products.
- Many common generic prescription drugs cost just $4 for a 30-day supply.
- Wide range of merchandise allows for convenient one-stop shopping.
- Size and scope of stores can make for very busy pharmacies and limited customer service.
- Selection of some common over-the-counter drugs and personal care/beauty items is limited compared with competitors.
- Few locations offer conveniences such as in-store health clinics.
- Customers report lower-than-average satisfaction with Walmart pharmacies in the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Pharmacy Study.
Takeaway: Walmart's reputation for low prices is reinforced at its pharmacies. Shoppers may have to trade a bit of customer service and selection to pay bottom dollar, but it's hard to beat Walmart's long list of $4 generic drugs. Convenience is a factor too — you can shop for just about anything else you need while you wait.
CVS Pharmacy Review
- Close to 10,000 locations in 49 states (includes locations in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).
- More than 1,100 in-store MinuteClinics offer a quick, widespread alternative to the family doctor for physicals, immunizations, and minor illnesses.
- Curbside prescription pickup.
- Substantial savings and many opportunities to earn rewards points with a CVS membership card.
- Wide range of (cheaper) store-brand items.
- Larger selection of specialty pharmacy items than big-box competitors.
- Highest prices for over-the-counter medicine and personal care/beauty items in our survey.
- Lowest customer satisfaction among chain drugstores in the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Pharmacy Study.
Takeaway: Although CVS is one of the more expensive options, other benefits potentially help balance out higher prices. Savvy shoppers can save big with an ExtraCare card and by choosing store brands. The sheer number of CVS pharmacies means you'll rarely have to go out of your way, and the chain offers many convenient in-store health clinics.
Kroger Pharmacy Review
- Second lowest prices on generic prescription medications and immunizations in our survey; cheapest price by far on flu shot for seniors.
- Popular fuel program allows pharmacy customers to earn points that convert to savings at the gas station.
- Customers can grocery shop while waiting for prescriptions to be filled.
- Robust prescription-savings program covers a wide range of drugs and can potentially offer big savings for customers who fill a lot of prescriptions.
- Higher prices than big-box stores for over-the-counter medications and personal care/beauty products.
- Middling prices for immunizations.
- Limited selection of common over-the-counter drugs and personal care/beauty items compared with competitors.
- Vague return policy could be a source of frustration for customers.
- Ranks well below the median for supermarket pharmacies in J.D. Power's 2019 U.S. Pharmacy Satisfaction Study.
Takeaway: Kroger can't quite touch the prices of its big-box-store competitors when it comes to over-the-counter medications and personal-care/beauty products. Still, it beats stand-alone pharmacies handily and offered the second-lowest prices in our survey of generic prescription drugs and vaccinations. Also, filling prescriptions during a grocery-shopping trip is undeniably convenient.
Target Pharmacy Review
- Cheapest prices on personal care/beauty items and second-cheapest prices on over-the-counter medications.
- Range of household goods and groceries allows for convenient one-stop shopping.
- Now that CVS Pharmacy has acquired Target pharmacies, shoppers who are members of CVS's rewards program can use their ExtraCare cards for behind-the-counter pharmacy purchases and earn rewards points toward Target coupons through prescription refills.
- Customers report better than average satisfaction with CVS pharmacies inside Target stores in the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Pharmacy Study.
- Middle-of-the-pack prices on prescription drugs and immunizations.
- Few locations offer conveniences such as in-store health clinics or drive-thru prescription pickup.
- Target's popular REDcard discount cannot be used on prescriptions or other items behind the pharmacy counter.
Takeaway: Now under the CVS umbrella, Target pharmacies are a mashup of good and bad. Customers pay Target's low prices on over-the-counter and personal care/beauty items outside the pharmacy, but they're stuck with CVS's higher prices on prescription drugs behind the counter. While Target can't match competitor Walmart toe-to-toe on cost, the store has its own cult following and earns much higher marks for customer satisfaction.
Walgreens Pharmacy Review
- Almost as easy to find as CVS, with more than 9,500 locations across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- Comprehensive prescription savings program can help uninsured patrons save money on common medications.
- Larger selection of specialty pharmacy items than big-box stores, including a wide range of (cheaper) store-brand items.
- Drive-thru prescription pickup.
- Second-highest prices on prescription drugs in our survey.
- Fewer in-store clinics than its closest competitor, CVS.
- Customers have only 30 days to make returns.
- Ranks slightly below average among chain drugstores in the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Pharmacy Satisfaction Study.
Takeaway: Like CVS, Walgreens partially makes up for its higher prices in convenience, as well as prescription savings and rewards points programs. Although the brand will be closing a number of stores, locations are still ubiquitous and customers appreciate the wide selection and cheap store-brand options. Also, compared to the other drugstore chains, Walgreens has reasonable prices on over-the-counter medications and personal care and beauty items .
Rite Aid Pharmacy Review
- Wellness+ rewards program offers substantial discounts and rewards for loyal customers.
- Wide range of immunizations available.
- 90-day return window is more generous than direct competitors'.
- Ranked higher than any of the other chain drugstores we surveyed in the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Pharmacy Satisfaction Study.
- Consistently high prices in every category except personal care/beauty items.
- Limited selection on several items in our price survey.
- Fewer locations and fewer clinics than its competitors.
- Stores we visited were dated, hard to navigate, and poorly organized; staff interactions left a lot to be desired.
Takeaway: A robust rewards program — including special deals for seniors who sign up for the Wellness65+ card — is one of the sole redeeming features at Rite Aid. Our experience was marred by high prices nearly across the board, limited selection on many products, and a poorly lit, haphazardly organized store that seemed stuck in a time warp. The chain also doesn't offer as many locations as its rivals.