With holiday and work commitments colliding every day, my posts this past month have been unusually slight—shorter and less than pithy. This tendency may have to continue until the year’s end, since it isn’t going to let up all that much. But I still hope to home in on the obscure, the typically overlooked, or—something I really love—the evidence of removal of something that was previously there. Take this suburban Walgreens as an example:
See what’s missing? Or, rather, do you not see it? Let’s zoom in a little bit.
Note the labelscar. This location previously said “24 HR” and no longer does. I certainly remember a point in time when one could rely upon many or most Walgreens to offer 24-hour operations, along with the much-touted drive-thru pharmacy. While suburban locations still seem to boast the latter feature, the former is increasingly difficult to find.
This Walgreens location in Greenwood, a suburb of Indianapolis, closes later than many: 11:00pm. But 10:00pm is common and 9:00pm isn’t unheard of. I only found one out of the 30-odd Walgreens locations in metro Indy that still had 24-hour operations: in the western suburb of Avon. As for this particular location, it last featured the 24-hour lettering back in the fall of 2016, but a year later, the Google Street View archives reveal that these letters had been removed.
What would have prompted this change? One might presume that the suburban character of the surrounding area simply cannot justify 24-hour operations, that there isn’t enough business in the middle of the night to generate a profit. This is probably true. After all, Greenwood Indiana isn’t exactly a town of simmering nightlife. By contrast, here’s a Walgreens just barely outside the city that never sleeps.
Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City, is one of the most densely populated smaller cities in the country. And this Walgreens sits poised on a corner of Washington Street, Hoboken’s prime commercial main street and the heart of its entertainment district. It obviously receives plenty of foot traffic, from people both commuting into Manhattan and those who live nearby. And the Walgreens kept the 24-hour operations to respect all the nighttime activity. I’ve circled the sign in bright purple.
But this photo is six years old. A more recent Google Street View shows a situation almost identical to Greenwood: the proprietors painted over the 24-hour sign. These days this location closes at 10pm, a condition instituted some time in 2018 or 2019.
It should be axiomatic that a business such as Walgreens is always going to act in economic self-interest. And it appears that a majority of locations can no longer justify the 24-hour schedule. What began as a gradual, incremental shift in a business model apparently kicked into overdrive after the COVID-19 pandemic, as more retailers emphasized reduced operating hours to allow for increased sanitization. For a brief time, apparently (and I’ll admit I find the source article to be dubious), the locations retained a 24-hour drive-thru pharmacy, and, if customers ordered online in advance, they could pick up the products they requested along with their prescriptions. I cannot verify this practice and think it’s unlikely to still be in place, twenty months after the first coronavirus restrictions took place. After all, it’s difficult to persuade pharmacists to work a “third shift” without significant pay raises, and pharmacists are already by far the highest-paid personnel at a typical Walgreens. But the pandemic almost certainly escalated the need for a widespread strategy on modifying hours to peak profitability.
A few macro-level economic and sociological changes have also no doubt prompted Walgreens to cut back their 24-hour locations. Staffing shortages induced by the “the great resignation” have affected the retail sector more than many others; it has the second-highest rate of departures, behind hospitality (an industry undoubtedly ravaged by the coronavirus-influenced restrictions on travel). This same practice has taken place among retailers in malls. Secondly, Walgreens has become a popular target for organized retail theft, with conditions escalating—and thieves getting so brazen—that close to two dozen locations have closed in San Francisco alone.
By no means am I asserting either of these two conditions have affected the elimination of 24-hour operations at the Walgreens featured here in Greenwood and Hoboken. But a scaling back of operating hours is rarely an indicator of an expanding revenue stream; the very practice of reducing operating hours from the maximum legally permitted lowers capitalization. Yet if not enough people patronize a Walgreens at 3:00 in the morning, what’s the point of staying open? The availability of prescription drugs are the biggest feature distinguishing Walgreens and CVS from more convenience-oriented operations like a Circle K or 7-Eleven, since in both cases the prices are significantly marked up over the standard supermarket or grocery store. Walgreens no doubt determined at one point in time that 24-hour operations would give them a competitive edge to Circle K (for which constant operating hours are a defining feature), but the increased risk of opportunistic criminality in the middle of the night weights heavily against the additional strategic sales during the graveyard shift, when so few competing stores are open. If the COVID-19 thumb continues to press heavily on the global economic scale, I expect to see increased reduction in operating hours among retailers near and far. Maybe they’ll be a little more subtle than simply chiseling off the letters “24 HR”. Maybe, as they did in Hoboken, they’ll at least paint over the labelscar.