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Pity poor Walgreens – or, more precisely, Walgreens shoppers – they can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to pricing. First, came a report that the drug store chain was allegedly overcharging shoppers on sale items. Now there’s a new report that says many customers are getting gouged on regularly-priced items as well.

If you’ve ever shopped at different stores in the same chain, or have seen prices listed online that didn’t match what you’ve seen in stores, you know that different retail locations can have different prices for the same products. But a pair of activist groups claims Walgreens is taking that concept a little too far. If you wander into the wrong Walgreens, they say, you could end up paying upwards of 50% more for the very same products that you could get at a lower-priced Walgreens in the same city, or even the same neighborhood.

The report was released this week by the National Consumers League, together with Change to Win, a division of the union-backed advocacy group Walgreen Strategy Watch. Undercover shoppers checked prices on a basket of 25 items at 485 Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid stores in four parts of the country: Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, New York City, and Orange County, California. Their conclusion? “Walgreens prices were all over the map” – and, compared to its competitors, Walgreens was the worst offender when it came to charging different prices in different locations.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the researchers found one Walgreens store charged $10.49 for a CoverGirl lipstick that another Walgreens a few miles away was offering for $8.29. In Anaheim, California, a Neutrogena Face Scrub cost $9.49 in one store, and just $7.99 in another. And in Manhattan, shoppers could find themselves paying either $15.99, or $11.49, for the very same package of Claritin, depending on which Midtown location they visited.

“Certainly consumers expect different chains to offer different deals,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League. “But price variation within a single chain is a wake-up call for consumers, who don’t tend to shop around and compare within a chain.”

“There is an expectation that pricing across a chain for the same item in the same market is consistent and transparent,” the report states. “For Rite Aid and CVS, this is largely true. Walgreens does not offer shoppers this assurance and consumers may wish to know why.”

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Walgreens is not denying the report’s findings, but it is offering something of an explanation. “Costs can vary from one location to another,” said Walgreens spokesman Jim Graham in a statement, “based on the store’s cost of real estate, its hours of operation including whether it is open 24 hours, labor costs and the number of customers it serves each day, among other factors.”

So the report’s authors suggest keeping that in mind when you visit a Walgreens store. Avoid “flagship” stores in particular, they advise. Those are the big, fancy locations that cost Walgreens a lot of money in upkeep. They have to make some of that money back somehow. Better to stick to more out-of-the-way locations, or stick to items that are advertised in the sales circulars, since those prices shouldn’t vary by store.

Oh, except when they do. Because this report comes on the heels of a recent lawsuit filed by Missouri’s Attorney General. Chris Koster alleges that Walgreens has “consistently and systematically displayed inaccurate sales tags, overcharged customers, failed to remove expired sales tags, failed to consistently ensure the price charged is the same as the price advertised, and used misleading or confusing in store-signs” (read more about that here: “Walgreens is Sued: Are Its Prices Wrong On Purpose?”).

So whether you just grab whatever you need in the store, or try to stick to the sales, it appears you’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t.

In the past, Walgreens supporters have tried to cast some doubt on Change to Win’s motives. The group issued a report in May that was critical of Walgreens’ Balance Rewards program, and what it said were chronic out-of-stock issues (read: “On Sale at Walgreens? Good Luck Finding It”). Walgreens backers suggested the union-supported advocacy group simply had an ax to grind. But the group says it’s just keeping Walgreens honest in an effort to improve its performance, for the benefit of all who have a financial stake in the company. And charging wildly different prices, mislabeling sale prices and not having products in stock, aren’t exactly helping, according to Walgreens’ critics.

“Shoppers often decide on drugstore locations based on convenience,” the report concludes, so it’s unfair to expect them to go to inconvenient locations just to get a fair price on what they need. Walgreens’ Graham counters that “we strive to be price competitive with nearby competition, and we believe our pricing reflects that.”

Convenience comes at a cost. And according to this report, at Walgreens, that cost can be even more significant than you may have realized.

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7 Comments

  1. Gaye Phillips says:

    I purchase allergy medicine on a regular basis. One store charges more than the other for very same product. Corporate says that’s their policy and can charge more. Not fair at all when every penny matters. Gonna shop elsewhere. Consumer rip off!

  2. Avid Shopper says:

    I just went to a Walgreens in Panama City, FL and purchased Omega-3 Oil by Renew life (a discontinued item originally $29.99) for $7.49 and went to the Walgreens in Lynn Haven and they were selling it marked down to $18.99. So I just bought OmegaSmart by the same manufacturer for $8.49 marked down from $20.99. I called the store to see if they would price match and the manager said they do not price match items. I think that is ridiculous for a discontinued item that is part of the same chain to be marked more than 50% higher. He told me to call back in the morning to see if it’s marked down any further. I’ll call, but I am definitely not going to make a trip out there if it’s not marked down any further. The point is to get discontinued items OFF the shelf. I guess they are waiting for a sucker or someone who doesn’t know any better to pay the higher price.

    • Avid Shopper says:

      I just purchased the same product at another PC, FL store marked down to $6.99. When I called the Lynn Haven store back, they dropped the price from $18.99 to $16.99. Crazy that it is $10 than a store 7 miles away.

  3. I am proud to say I am a Walgreens employee. I have been for nearly 5 years. I had no conception of the amount of work involved in keeping a store like Walgreens operating until I hired in. I have worked, very hard, from checkout clerk to Asst.Store Manager in that time. I put blood and sweat into trying to see that customers are treated with respect and honesty. My team of workers and I struggle daily with keeping shelves stocked, prices displayed, sale tags up, daily price changes completed, stock counts done, ordering done all the while trying to smile and be polite to numerous customers who either openly accuse us personally of trying to rip them off, or come into the store with a chip on their shoulder and an attitude that they are entitled o preferential treatment over all who are in the store at the time. We are demeaned, verbally abused and unappreciated for all we try to do for our Customers. I don’t think most people understand that individual stores do not have control over price consistency between stores, and often even over having certain items in stock that are advertised on sale. Often the warehouses are not stocked in the items we are trying to order. Yes there are problems, and yes they need to be corrected. But, to all Walgreens customers, please keep in mind that, as with any very large corporation, it is not the “little” people, those working in the trenches, who are to blame. So please, be kind to your Walgreens service personnel. They are trying their best to work within a flawed system that is being reworked and updated . We truly do love our customers and our jobs, otherwise, for the amount of pay we receive, we would be working down the road at McDonalds….and getting paid more.

  4. SanDiegoInExile says:

    I currently live in a west coast town of less than 100,000. The three Walgreens are always varied in prices on some items. (As have the 4 CVS and the 3 Safeways). Competition is part of it, but it also depends on clientele. The stores nestled in the mostly residential parts of town are consistently lower-priced than the stores by the university. The flagship (ie larger) stores in the main shopping district are also higher priced than the smaller more suburban ones.

    Not sure why this is a surprise. Gas prices also vary by area. A few blocks can often mean savings of 10-15 cents a gallon.

    Frankly, most consumers don’t care enough to even notice.

  5. If this is news to people, then they simply haven’t been paying attention! Walmart has been doing this for years based on the competition around each store.

    The unions are desperate for membership. They are going after retail stores now, and their friends in government (you know, the ones that get big contributions from the unions) are helping. Other government officials go after big name stores because they have political aspirations, and anything involving large chain stores is going to make news. They are trying to convince the average consumer that they are looking out for you. When unions and/or government get involved prices always go UP. Always. Please bear in mind that if stores like Walgreens are pressed to have consistent pricing, they will NOT be adjusting to the lowest price.

    My best piece of advice to shoppers is to GET OFF YOUR PHONE while you are shopping and pay cash. It is important to pay attention to prices, selection, etc., and when you have to count out the cash, you will be more mindful of how much you are spending.

  6. CVS does this as well. I’ve been able to identify 3 different price levels. I originally thought it was based on how the affluence of the area the store is located in, but I have finally decided that it’s based on whether they have local competitors. In my area, the store with Rite Aid and Walgreens nearby has the cheapest prices. The one that used to have a Rite Aid nearby had middle prices, and the ones with no competitor nearby have the highest. You’ll notice the differences mostly in the cosmetics departments. Some stuff is a dollar more than in the cheaper stores. If they have a sale with an advertised price it’s not an issue. If it’s a Buy 1 Get 1 Free sale (or some percentage off) it is.

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