Drugstore Showdown: Which Pharmacy Is Cheapest?

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pharmacist and client at pharmacy counter
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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 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 medications to vaccines to a selection of health, beauty, and personal-care products, the drugstores charged more than other retailers in the same market area. (Warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam's Club also may offer significant savings on prescriptions, even for non-members, but consumers must pay to join if they want to purchase other items in our comparison.)

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 while shopping for groceries and other sundries, rather than make a separate trip.

We gathered prices for 10 common generic prescription drugs, 10 immunizations, 20 over-the-counter drugs and vitamins, and 20 health and personal-care items. Walmart was the overall winner in three out of the four categories, making good on its promise of low prices. Here’s how the numbers shook out:

  • For cheap immunizations, Walmart bested second-place Walgreens by more than 10 percent. It was more than 20 percent cheaper than CVS, which charged the most overall for immunizations. Consumers who are looking for the cheapest seasonal flu shot and don’t have insurance will find that there’s not much variance across pharmacies here; little more than a dollar separates Walmart’s low price of $39.88 from CVS’s high of $40.99. But choosing Walgreens for the high-dose flu shot recommended for seniors can net savings up to $10.
  • Walmart had the lowest prices on over-the-counter medications and personal-care/beauty items. However, Target was a very close second. CVS was most expensive, charging about 28 and 36 percent more than Walmart in those categories, respectively.
  • Kroger charged the lowest out-of-pocket prices on generic prescription medications, besting Walmart by 15 percent. Walgreens was most expensive, charging more than twice as much as Kroger. Prices can vary widely; for instance, a 30-day supply of atorvastatin, a generic version of the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, was $30 at Kroger and Walmart but more than $95 at CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid.

(One important note: CVS now operates the pharmacies in Target stores, but the acquisition did not affect over-the-counter drugs and beauty/personal care products, which we compared separately.)

Although it’s pretty clear that mass merchants have a big-time price advantage over drugstores, there are still some compelling reasons not to abandon your corner pharmacy:

  • Convenience. CVS, for instance, has more than 9,700 stores in 49 states -- nearly double the number of Walmarts with pharmacies. Walgreens has more than 8,100 locations in all 50 states and is poised for more growth, with a planned acquisition of more than 1,900 Rite Aid stores. That means there’s probably a drugstore in your neighborhood. If you’re just making a quick trip to get a couple of prescriptions filled, or you need only some cough syrup as soon as possible, proximity often beats price.
  • Additional services. Walk-in clinics operated by the drugstore chains offer a quick alternative to the family doctor. Most can diagnose and treat minor illnesses and injuries or perform quick checkups, physicals, and medical screenings. CVS has more than 1,100 MinuteClinics, while Walgreens has more than 400 health-care clinics. Big-box and grocery-store health clinics are less common.
  • Selection. Stand-alone pharmacies have a wider selection of certain items, particularly personal-care products and over-the-counter medications. That includes store-brand substitutes for common over-the-counter drugs, which can be a big money-saver.
  • Rewards programs. CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid have extensive rewards programs that give cardholders access to sale prices, buy-one-get-one deals, and points that can be converted to discounts on future purchases. These can help make up the price differences on certain products compared with mass-merchant pharmacies, but they are limited-time promotions rather than everyday low prices.
  • Personal attention. If you feel like you’re always searching for help in a big-box store, you might appreciate the more intimate shopping experience offered by a stand-alone pharmacy. During our visits, we observed pharmacy employees greeting regular customers by name -- not a common phenomenon at mass merchants.