Price Survey: Stay Away From the Biggest Drugstore Chains

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Is a chain drugstore the first place that comes to mind when you're out of toothpaste or need to have a new prescription filled? You may be better off heading to a supermarket or big-box store. A recent pharmacy comparison by Cheapism.com consistently found lower prices at Walmart, Target, and Kroger than at Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid, the three largest drugstore chains. From prescription drugs to vaccines to a selection of health, beauty, and personal-care products, the stand-alone drugstores charged more than other retailers in the same market area.

Rewards programs and extensive inventories of store-brand products help the pharmacy chains compete on price. The smaller stores also make customer service more accessible and save time when shoppers need only a few things. Still, many consumers prefer to pick up drugstore items at the same time they do their other shopping.

Prices.

For a shopping basket of eight products, Walmart and Target were nearly 30 percent cheaper than Rite Aid, the store with the highest total in Cheapism's drugstore price comparison. Prices for individual items were almost always higher at the stand-alone drugstores. In the makeup aisle, for example, Maybelline Volum' Express The Falsies mascara commanded $7.49 at CVS and Rite Aid and $7.99 at Walgreens compared with $5.94 at Walmart, $5.99 at Target, and $6.39 at Kroger.

Similarly, prescription drugs were more expensive at the stand-alone pharmacies. The tab (without insurance) for five common medications at Rite Aid was more than $200 higher than the total at Walmart. The sleep aid Ambien accounted for much of the difference; a 30-day supply cost more than twice as much as the same prescription at any other store. Enrolling in the free Rite Aid Prescription Savings Program brings down the price; similar programs at CVS and Walgreens have annual fees. By contrast, deals such as $4 generics don't require any sort of membership at Walmart, Target, and Kroger. Some of the discounted drugs cost so little that it's worth asking the retail price even if you have insurance. The table below lists full retail prices, as insurance coverage varies by provider and plan.

Prescription Drug
CVS
Rite Aid
Walgreens
Kroger
Target
Walmart
Amoxicillin
(10 days, 100 ml)
$13.19
$27
$6
$4
$4
$4
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) With Codeine
(30 days, 300 mg)
$14.69
$22.98
$16.99
$15
$20.99
$14
Ambien (30 days, 10 mg)
$50.59
$118.99
$47.99
$50
$48.99
$37.58
Vicodin (30 days, 300 mg)
$62.59
$59.99
$57.99
$39
$57.99
$38.49
Prevacid (30 days, 30 mg)
$144.99
$160.99
$205.99
$150
$104.49
$88.50
TOTAL
$286.05
$389.95
$334.96
$258
$236.46
$182.57

Flu shots are available from all six chains at select locations. The price tag is $31.99 at the stand-alone pharmacies and $25 elsewhere. The cheapest provider in Cheapism's flu shot comparison was Costco, which also offers low prices on prescription drugs, even to nonmembers. However, access to most other drugstore items requires a Costco membership ($55 and up), so the warehouse club was not included in the larger drugstore comparison. Nor were independent pharmacies, where prices are far more variable from location to location than within the national chains.

Rewards Programs.

Despite the low sticker prices at supermarkets and big-box stores, many shoppers favor particular drugstore chains for their rewards programs. Loyal customers receive dollar amounts to put toward future purchases, among other benefits. Janelle Sender, of Milford, Del., shops at Rite Aid in the hope of earning enough points for a 10- or 20-percent-off shopping pass.

At the same time, Kroger and Target offer perks that extend to their pharmacy departments and make their pricing even more competitive. Christy Rowland, of Columbus, Ohio, frequents the Kroger pharmacy because she can collect fuel points with her Kroger Plus card -- 50 points per prescription filled. Target shoppers who join the Pharmacy Rewards program receive 5 percent off a future shopping trip for signing up and for every five prescriptions filled. This is on top of the 5 percent discount Target customers get when they use the store's RedCard (debit or credit).

Store Brands and Selection.

The stand-alone drugstores carry a wider array of store brands (which cost less than their name-brand equivalents) than Walmart, Target, or Kroger. As a result, substituting store brands helped the drugstore chains perform better in Cheapism's price comparison of personal-care items, beauty products, and over-the-counter medications -- particularly CVS, which offered generic versions of six out of eight products. When the totals were recalculated using store brands where available, CVS moved into third place behind Walmart and Target. In general, the drugstore chains' inventory dwarfed the combined selection of in-house and name brands in the other retailers' health-and-beauty departments.

Convenience.

There is a lot of overlap in the pharmacy services offered by stand-alone drugstores, big-box stores, and supermarkets. They include automatic refills, text/phone/email reminders, and online prescription management. All the retailers also have walk-in clinics that provide basic health care, although they vary widely in number. CVS has by far the most -- more than 900 nationwide -- followed by Walgreens, with about 400.

Walgreens and CVS also count thousands more retail locations than any of the other chains. Although a quick stop at a nearby store is often convenient for many consumers, grocery stores and mass merchants have the appeal of one-stop shopping. Many consumers prefer to patronize the pharmacy at a store they already frequent for other things. Although the drugstores have an aisle or two of food items, you can't get all your grocery shopping done while you wait for prescriptions to be filled.