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Large national drugstores like Rite Aid, CVS, and Walgreens stock their shelves with nearly identical products, and many shoppers simply choose the nearest store rather than favor one over the others. This has led the chains to create and promote free loyalty programs, which encourage repeat visits by offering shoppers discounts on current and future purchases. Even so, some shoppers simply open an account with each store and continue to dip into the most convenient location, rather than try to maximize rewards at a single chain. We wondered if that's the best money-saving strategy, though. Is one of the programs distinctively more rewarding than the others? The answer depends on who you are and how you shop. Let's take a look at some key features of each program:

CVS: ExtraCare.

CVS is one of the largest pharmacy chains, with more than 7,500 locations, and its 15-year-old ExtraCare program was the first chain-wide loyalty card established by a national pharmacy. The program stands out with rewards called ExtraBucks that translate directly into dollars off a future purchase (as opposed to a point system). Rewards are issued four times a year on receipts, on, or through the ExtraCare Coupon Center in-store. They must be redeemed within 45 days and used on a single purchase.

  • Earn 2 percent back in ExtraBucks Rewards for most everyday purchases.
  • 10 prescriptions = $5 in ExtraBucks Rewards within about a week (after enrollment in ExtraCare Pharmacy & Health Rewards).
  • $50 spent on beauty products = $5 in ExtraBucks Rewards within two days (after enrollment in the ExtraCare Beauty Club).
  • Receive personalized coupons and access to discounts via email and in-store Coupon Centers, online, and on receipts.
  • Download the store's app to access an ExtraCare account, save a scan-able ExtraCare card on a smartphone, and send coupons and rewards to a card for easy redemption at checkout.

Walgreens: Balance Rewards.

Walgreens, along with subsidiary Duane Reade, revamped its program last year and created Balance Rewards. Members earn points on select items featured in the weekly ad, which can be redeemed for savings on future purchases at a rate of $1 to $1.25 per 1,000 points (5,000 = $5 and 40,000 = $50). Points remain valid for three years, so long as you use your card at least once every six months.

  • Earn points with purchase of select items and redeem anytime after total hits 5,000.
  • Receive 250 points for setting your first fitness goal through the Steps with Balance Rewards program; 20 points for each mile you walk or run and for each daily log when you track your weight; and 250 points for syncing a FitBit, BodyMedia, or Withings device to monitor your progress automatically.
  • As an AARP member, rack up 5,000 points (a $5 reward) with a qualifying $25 purchase once per month and receive other exclusive high-point offers.
  • Earn 500 to 1,500 points for filling prescriptions and getting immunizations.
  • Track and manage points online or with the Walgreens app.

Rite Aid: Wellness+.

Rite Aid's Wellness+ program offers both points toward rewards (such as restaurant gift certificates and magazine subscriptions) and money off for future visits. Members who purchase featured items earn +Up Rewards, a given dollar amount that can be applied to another purchase within two weeks. They also earn one point per dollar spent on non-prescription purchases at Rite Aid, with special status granted to those who accrue 250, 500, and 1,000 points in a given year.

  • Earn +Up rewards on select purchases and points on all purchases.
  • Receive access to members-only sales.
  • Load coupons onto your card and check point balances online.
  • Receive 10 percent off Rite Aid brand products after accruing 250 points (bronze status), 10 percent off almost the entire store with 500 points (silver), and 20 percent off with 1,000 points (gold) through the next calendar year (some exclusions apply -- alcohol and lottery tickets, for example).
  • Earn 25 points per non-government-funded prescription and one point per dollar spent on co-pays for government-funded prescriptions.
  • Seniors receive 20 percent off non-prescription purchases the first Wednesday of each month (with enrollment in Wellness65+).

Our Recommendation.

The rewards programs at the three major national pharmacy chains all offer exclusive discounts and coupons to card holders, but they are decidedly different in other ways. Some benefits are specific to certain groups of shoppers. Seniors receive extra incentives at Walgreens and Rite Aid, for example, and CVS has an additional rewards program for beauty product fanatics. Members of Walgreens' free fitness rewards program can accrue points without making a single purchase.

For customers who make many everyday purchases at drugstores, CVS or Rite Aid may be the best option. Rite Aid's tiered system offers shoppers a 10 percent or 20 percent discount on almost everything once they reach silver or gold status, but getting there requires a lot of spending. CVS's offer of 2 percent back may be more appealing for consumers who don't spend thousands per year on drugstore merchandise. They just have to wait for those quarterly ExtraBucks Rewards and be sure to redeem in time.

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