Walgreens and CVS: Can They Save America’s Struggling Pharmacies?

The key pharmaceutical retailers in the US, like Walgreens and CVS, are at a crucial turning point. They contend with modest financial returns, formidable adversaries, and evolving consumer preferences. These major establishments are developing fresh strategies to enhance customer retention and satisfaction. During a recent podcast of the Bloomberg Businessweek talk show, industry insiders deliberated on the challenges these stores confront and the innovative methods they are employing to redefine the medication purchasing experience.

The Current Landscape: Challenges and Competition

Declining Profit Margins and Consumer Avoidance

Retail pharmacy chains have been struggling with declining profit margins. Jim Ellis, the Assistant Managing Editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, highlighted in the podcast that profit margins are falling at major chains, including CVS and Walgreens. One of the key problems is the front of the store, where competition and inflation are making it difficult to turn a profit. Consumers often find that products are expensive and locked up, leading to long lines and frustrating experiences, which encourages them to seek alternatives online.

Ellis emphasized, “A lot of people avoid going to the pharmacy because of the high prices and the hassle involved. It’s a negative experience for many.” Many consumers share this sentiment, preferring the convenience and cost-effectiveness of online shopping.

The Broken Business Model

The traditional business model of placing the pharmacy at the back of the store, forcing customers to walk through aisles of high-margin products, is no longer effective. Jim Ellis explained, “People used to pick up overpriced retail items as they walked to the back of the store to get their prescriptions. Now, they can get these items cheaper online or at big-box stores like Walmart and Amazon” . This shift has significantly impacted the financial health of these pharmacy chains.

Staffing and Operational Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages and operational challenges. Pharmacies are often understaffed, leading to longer wait times and reduced hours. Moreover, pharmacists are now required to handle additional responsibilities such as vaccinations and health screenings, adding to the chaos. Ellis pointed out, “Pharmacists are now doing more with fewer staff, which makes the pharmacy experience less pleasant for customers” .

Innovative Solutions: Revamping the Pharmacy Experience

New Store Layouts

To address these challenges, Walgreens and CVS are experimenting with new store layouts. One radical change is moving the pharmacy counter to the front of the store. This initiative aims to reduce wait times and improve customer convenience. “Walgreens is testing new layouts where the pharmacy is at the front, and customers can use kiosks to enter their information and wait in their cars” , said Ellis. This change is designed to make the pharmacy visit more efficient and less stressful.

Embracing Technology

Technology plays a crucial role in modernizing the pharmacy experience. Both Walgreens and CVS are investing in digital tools that allow customers to manage their prescriptions online, schedule deliveries, and consult with pharmacists virtually. These innovations are intended to compete with the convenience offered by online-only pharmacies.

Ellis highlighted the competitive edge of digital solutions, “Online-only pharmacies offer unmatched convenience. Traditional chains are trying to keep up by enhancing their delivery services and integrating more technology into their operations” .

Health and Wellness Services

Expanding beyond traditional pharmacy roles, Walgreens and CVS are increasing their range of health and wellness services. These include vaccinations, health screenings, and wellness consultations. By offering more comprehensive health services, they aim to attract customers looking for a one-stop healthcare solution.

Ellis remarked, “Pharmacies are becoming more like health clinics, providing a wider range of services to meet consumer needs” .

Risks and Considerations, Financial Implications, Consumer Adaptation

One significant risk is whether consumers will adapt to these changes. Changing long-standing habits can be challenging. Ellis noted, “When you change a habit that consumers have had for decades, it can confuse them and even drive them to try different options, like online pharmacies” . The success of these innovations depends on how well consumers embrace the new store layouts and digital tools.

The financial investment required for these changes is substantial. Moving the pharmacy counter, installing new technology, and expanding services all come with high costs. There is also the risk that these investments might not yield the expected returns if consumer behavior does not change as anticipated.

Insights from Industry Experts

Katie Thomas on Consumer Behavior

Katie Thomas, Head of the Kearney Consumer Institute, provided insights into how consumers are dealing with inflation and how it affects their spending behavior. Thomas explained that while consumers notice price increases in essential areas like food and gas, they are cautious about their overall spending. “Consumers are increasingly prioritizing and making trade-offs in their discretionary spending” .

Thomas also highlighted the changing definition of discretionary spending. For instance, many consumers now consider their annual vacation a must-have expense and are willing to cut back on other areas to afford it. “Twenty-six percent of consumers told us their annual vacation is a must-have, and they make trade-offs in other areas to enable this” .

Dana D’Auria on Market Reactions

Dana D’Auria, Co-CIO of Envestnet, discussed the market reactions to recent economic data and the implications for the retail pharmacy sector. D’Auria noted that while there was an initial overreaction to the CPI report, the long-term outlook for pharmacies remains uncertain due to the challenges of adapting to new consumer behaviors and economic conditions .

D’Auria emphasized the importance of strategic investments and adapting to market trends, “Investors need to be cautious and strategic in deploying cash, considering the volatility and changing market conditions” .


Walgreens and CVS are driving the transformation in how we perceive pharmacies in the U.S. They are trying out different methods for structuring their shops, employing more advanced technology, and incorporating additional healthcare assistance. They are looking to solve problems such as declining revenue, strong competitors, and changing consumer behavior. However, there are potential hazards associated with adopting new techniques, and their success or failure will be determined by consumer satisfaction and efficient financial usage.

Walgreens and CVS are working diligently to reshape their business approaches, as the goal is to streamline the shopping process, incorporate more technology, and offer enhanced customer support. Many stores are adopting this approach. They aim to stay current with people’s needs. At the same time, drug stores in the US will likely unite more with larger healthcare facilities. They aim to provide a comprehensive and convenient experience for all who come in.

For more insights, watch Carol and Tim LIVE every day on YouTube here and catch the Bloomberg Businessweek podcast on Apple, Spotify, or the Bloomberg Terminal.

Nick Alexson

Nick Alexson spent many years working in the field of healthcare, especially in its technical part. Gained much experience in Open Data and Machine Readable Formats used in the industry. Also, built several IT projects that were designed to help people with their healthcare decisions. Now he is an editor and author of Pharmacy Near Me

1 Comment on "Walgreens and CVS: Can They Save America’s Struggling Pharmacies?"

  1. Consideration for patient/consumer trust in public health and the medical profession should be taken into account. Walgreens and CVS were complicit in COVID contempt for Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin while administering vaccines without appropriate package insert information (or clinical regulatory procedures).

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