Woman at drug store counter

In a not-so-distant past, while drug stores were the destination channel of choice for health and wellness products and services (driven largely by the pharmacy), foods and beverages were hardly de rigueur. The corner drug store was always a "convenient" location but not so much a convenient place to shop. Over time, drug stores' relevance with consumers diminished as pharmacies and healthcare clinics sprang up in supermarkets. In dire need to reverse the trend line, drug store brands looked for ways to reinvent and revitalize their retail offerings and experiences.

In a bit of role reversal, drug stores took a page from the supermarket playbook. If grocers were banking on health and wellness to enhance their channel's offerings, then why couldn't drug stores sell more foods and beverages?

Today, the drug channel boasts a robust 42,000 stores across the U.S., with annual revenues in excess of $230 billion. Over the next two years, the drug channel is expected to continue to flourish, fueled by increases in new store locations and consumer spending.

Walgreens is an example of how the drug store is taking a bite out of the supermarket and convenience channel market share through expanded food and beverage offerings. Walgreens is currently fully reimagining the typical drug store experience through its offering of fresh and high-quality private-label foods. This is true both within the Walgreens banner itself and, more dramatically, within its newly acquired Duane Reade stores in New York.

Health and wellness remains the bedrock of distinction in consumers' minds as to what makes drug stores unique. For better or for worse, health and wellness, pharmacists, and prescription plans are what still drive many shoppers to drug stores, and, as we'll find out, it's not always the happiest of occasions.

Before we address the role of food and health and wellness in drug store formats, it's worth highlighting how food shopping has changed today and what this means for today's shopper. The Hartman Group's Shopping Topography report illustrates that, in step with the spread of foods and beverages to diverse retail channels, shoppers continue to expand their shopping behavior out over multiple formats:

  • One in two (50 percent) shoppers said they shopped two or more stores on their last grocery shopping trip.
  • With the rise in mobile and digital technologies, food shopping has now become a 24-7, anytime, anywhere activity.
  • Shopping Topography finds that consumers shop in two modes across all food retail channels: "Browse and Buy" and "Search and Retrieve." Shoppers toggle between these modes, depending on mission, needs, and personal interests that trigger purchase.

As with all other channels, shoppers visiting drug stores exhibit both "browse and buy" and "search and retrieve" shopping styles:

  • 58 percent say they are "browsing and buying." This involves discovery and being surprised.
  • 38 percent say they are "searching and retrieving," which is chiefly about getting in and out of the store.

Compared to other primary retail channels (grocery, dollar, club, mass discount), the drug store numbers are the lowest and highest of each shopping style reported by consumers. Relatively low browsing underscores how little interest shoppers have in "discovering" new products within drug stores. Conversely, the relatively high "search and retrieve" behavior highlights how shoppers believe going to the drug store is chiefly about getting "the job done" as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The drug channel is now a highly convenient shopping channel with one-quarter (24 percent) of shopping trips described as immediate consumption occasions (an occasion where foods and beverages purchased are consumed within one hour of purchase). Figure 1

This underscores the opportunities for drug stores to capitalize on immediate consumption and the potential for snack, portable foods and beverages offerings.

Figure One: Food Retail Channels and Trip Missions

food retail channels and trip missions

Figure 1: Consumers claim that they still go on their weekly or monthly stock-up trips to Grocery stores, Club stores, and, increasingly, Mass stores, but during the week the stock-up trip needs to be supplemented with fill-in trips to a variety of different channels, depending on needs, occasions, forgetfulness, and, in the case of immediate consumption, hunger and thirst. Consumers will also stop at several stores in one day. Drug is the most popular channel for immediate consumption, with 24 percent of shoppers saying they last shopped a drug store in this manner. Source: Shopper Topography 2012, The Hartman Group, Inc.

What about the drug store experience overall?

It is not clear to shoppers how the drug store can add value to their health and wellness journeys. More than three-fourth (78 percent) of shoppers said they visit drug stores, but less than half (47 percent) are satisfied with the shopping experience. Shoppers express dissatisfaction with being tied to a particular drug store because of their insurance and prescription drug plans that heavily dictate their shopping trips.

The Convenience Prescription

As drug stores continue to tweak their product mix by integrating more food products, higher-quality private brands, and beverages (including micro-brew beers and barista-crafted coffee and espresso drinks), competition will remain fierce as traditional supermarkets and convenience stores are all vying for the same consumer.

Walgreens is certainly at the forefront of innovation in the channel as it continues its push into fresh and prepared foods. While CVS Caremark is focused on prescription services and the beauty category, and Rite Aid experiments with wellness services in its formats, there is still room for the drug channel to develop offerings aligned with immediate consumption and other eating occasions that consumers associate with shopping drug stores.

Certainly, drug stores should leverage their strength in prescriptions, but there is significant room to expand wellness into snack and portable fresh-food offerings. Such offerings will go a long way in fostering a new sense of discovery and surprise and might foster a greater appeal for browsing in stores, thus elevating the channel's allure and appeal to a wider share of shoppers.