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, like Target and Walmart, although rewards programs and store-brand products may help narrow the price gap between the two. At the same time, drugstores such as CVS and Walgreens 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.
PricePharmacy departments within big-box stores and supermarkets can be substantially 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 two and a half time as much as the total at Walmart, the cheapest: $957 at the drugstore vs. $372 at the big-box store, a difference of nearly $600. With a total of about $454 for these same drugs, grocer Kroger 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. Membership in Walgreens' Prescription Savings Club ($20 a year for an individual and $35 for a family) can bring down prices for customers without insurance. For example, a club member with a prescription for a one-month supply of Finasteride would pay $10 instead of $81. Kroger has a similar program, the Kroger Rx Savings Club, that costs $36 a year ($72 for a family) and is quite extensive. It offers deep savings on every drug on our list and even brought the price for three of them down to $0. Rite Aid 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 membership necessary.
|250 mg, 5 days||$39.99||$16.99||$45||$39.99||$32.10|
*30-day supply unless otherwise noted
For immunizations, there was a difference of about $250 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 $75 at Rite Aid but $60 at Kroger. For the Hepatitis B vaccine, the difference between the highest and lowest available prices was about $75.
|Flu shot |
|Flu shot |
|Hepatitis A |
|Hepatitis B |
*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 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. There was about a $75 difference between CVS, the priciest store in this category, and 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 tube of Orajel Severe Toothache and Gum Relief was $10.49 at CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens, but it was closer to $6 at Walmart and Target. Kroger’s price fell in the middle of the range at $8.89.
Over-the-Counter Medication/Vitamin Prices
|Centrum Silver Vitamins |
|DayQuil Cold & Flu |
|Mucinex DM Expectorant and Cough Suppressant |
(16 fl. oz.)
|Infant Tylenol |
(2 fl. oz.)
|Prilosec OTC |
|Abreva Cold Sore Treatment |
|Rogaine Hair Regrowth Treatment |
(men's foam, 3 mos.)
|Afrin Original Nasal Spray |
|Flonase Allergy Relief |
|Delsym Cough Suppressant |
|Claritin Non-Drowsy Indoor/Outdoor Allergies |
|Cepacol Extra Strength Sore Throat Lozenges |
|Orajel Severe Toothache and Gum Relief |
|Excedrin Migraine |
|One A Day VitaCraves |
|Pepcid AC Original Strength |
|Plan B One-Step Emergency Contraceptive||$49.99||$49.99||$49.99||$47.49||$49.99||$46.87|
The story was the same for personal-care and beauty items: Target and Walmart were much cheaper in this category, although Kroger mounted stronger competition here. CVS was priciest again, with about $60 separating it from Target, the cheapest option. Again, price differences on individual products were substantial. Shoppers could pay around $26 for Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Moisturizer at CVS, Rite Aid, or Walgreens, or between $16 and $19 at Target or Walmart. Kroger tended to be on the pricier side for specialty skin care items like the Olay moisturizer, Eucerin lotion, and Mederma. Take those off our list, and the grocer would have lagged the other mass merchants by less than $7 (with a total of $98.35 compared with $95.13 for Target and $91.94 for Walmart). Also, Kroger undercut all the others on our two dental hygiene items, toothpaste and mouthwash.
Personal Care/Beauty Product Prices
|Personal Care/Beauty Product||CVS||Kroger||Rite Aid||Target||Walgreens||Walmart|
|Tampax Pearl |
(super, 36 ct.)
|Secret Clinical Strength Solid |
|Skintimate Shaving Cream |
|Listerine Cool Mint |
|Eucerin Original Healing Body Lotion |
|Head & Shoulders Classic Clean |
|Clairol Nice 'n Easy Hair Color||$8.19||$7.29||$8.29||$6.99||$7.99||$6.92|
|Softsoap Antibacterial Soap |
|Revlon ColorStay Overtime Lip Color||$11.79||$9.29||$10.79||$8.49||$11.49||$8.48|
|CoverGirl Full Lash Bloom Mascara||$9.79||$7.29||$8.99||$5.39||$8.79||$6.49|
|Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Moisturizer |
|Always Ultra Thin Pads With Wings |
(regular, 36 ct.)
|Sensodyne Pronamel Toothpaste |
|Depend Fit-Flex |
(women's small/medium, 19 ct.)
(Flexible Fabric, 100 ct.)
(cherry or original, 3 ct.)
|Mederma Advanced Scar Treatment |
|Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 30 |
(3 fl. oz.)
Store BrandsAll 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 Cold & Flu at Rite Aid for $10.49, 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 (which carries the Equate brand label) is $3.97 and Kroger's is only $4.07.
Rewards ProgramsWhile 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 DayQuil from $10.49 to $9.99, and spending $30 on a variety of household, personal, grocery, baby, or cold care products would have earned $10 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: $4 off Mucinex DM and 5,000 points (convertible to $5 in rewards) on a purchase of $25 in cough and cold products. At Rite Aid, customers with Wellness+ loyalty cards can access card-only sales and earn points toward silver status (10 percent off most store items for a year) or gold (20 percent off most store items for a year). 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.
SelectionIt 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. While CVS offered dozens of options in women's disposable razors, for instance, Rite Aid had only a few.
ConvenienceMany 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 local store we visited except Walmart. (Target is piloting a Drive Up option in select markets. 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. A thousand Target stores were anticipated to support the service by the end of 2018, but no official comprehensive list has been released.)
As for in-store walk-in health clinics, CVS far outpaces the rest with more than 1,100 clinics nationwide. It's also the largest pharmacy in the nation, with more than 9,800 locations. Walgreens is a close second, 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 locations. It now has about 2,500 stores and scarcely registers on the health-clinic scale, with fewer than 70 RediClinics at locations nationwide (a failed 2018 merger with Albertson’s grocery chain would have dramatically increased that number).
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.
Customer ServiceOne disadvantage of turning to a mass-merchant 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.
Despite our observations, in a recent survey of customer satisfaction by J.D. Power, Kroger and CVS pharmacies inside Target stores scored above-average ratings in their respective brackets. Rite Aid just slightly beat the average for chain drug stores, while CVS and Walgreens notched slightly below-average marks. Walmart fared the worst of the bunch. Shoppers ultimately preferred warehouse clubs and smaller regional chains.
Although pharmacies are likely to see fewer returns than other stores because of the consumable nature of many items, it’s worth comparing policies to see which chains make the process easiest. 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 non-big-box pharmacies, offering just 30 days. Target and Walmart both offer 90 days, although Target extends that window to 120 days for Target REDcard shoppers.
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.
Speaking of exclusions, 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, wwashinhile Walgreens says the return of cosmetics is up to the store manager’s discretion. Target specifically says it does accept the return of most opened beauty items.
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 2018 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.
- 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 with an ExtraCare rewards card.
- Wide range of (cheaper) store-brand items.
- Larger selection of specialty pharmacy items than big-box competitors.
- Highest prices for immunizations, over-the-counter medicine, and personal-care/beauty items in our survey.
Takeaway: Although CVS is one of the most 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 in our survey.
- Highest customer satisfaction among the stores we compared in J.D. Power's 2018 U.S. Pharmacy Study.
- 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.
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. It also stands out for customer satisfaction, and 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 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 Target coupons through prescription refills.
- Customers report better than average satisfaction with CVS pharmacies inside Target stores in the J.D. Power 2018 U.S. Pharmacy Study.
- High prices on prescription drugs and immunizations since the acquisition by CVS.
- 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 CVS's high prices on prescription drugs behind the counter but Target's low prices on over-the-counter and personal-care/beauty items outside the pharmacy. Target also earns much higher marks for customer satisfaction than big-box competitor Walmart.
- Second-lowest prices on common immunizations.
- Walgreens is 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.
- Highest prices on prescription drugs and second-highest prices on personal care/beauty items in our survey.
- Fewer in-store clinics than its closest competitor, CVS.
- Customers have only 30 days to make returns.
- Lowest customer satisfaction among chain drugstores in the J.D. Power 2018 U.S. Pharmacy Study.
Takeaway: Like CVS, Walgreens partially makes up for its higher prices in convenience. There are locations everywhere, and customers appreciate the wide selection, cheap store-brand options, and prescription savings and rewards programs. Walgreens also has reasonable prices on immunizations.
Rite Aid Review
- Wellness+ rewards program offers substantial discounts and rewards for loyal customers, including savings at Exxon and Mobil gas stations.
- Wide range of immunizations and the cheapest pricing on seasonal flu shots.
- 90-day return window is more generous than direct competitors'.
- Consistently high prices in every category, from prescription drugs to 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.
Takeaway: A robust rewards program is one of the sole redeeming features at Rite Aid. Our experience was marred by high prices 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.