Drive-thru pharmacy: a tactic to prevent merchandise shrinkage…by shrinking?

From soup to nuts, pharmaceuticals are facing no end of scrutiny these days.  Whether it’s based on their ability to dodge regulatory oversight, the tendency for pharma developers to purchase political influence (these first two factors obviously go hand-in-hand), their correlation to various widespread drug dependencies, or their often indirect but undeniable role in organized crime syndicates (also a pair of inextricably linked factors), the centrality of prescription drugs weighs increasingly heavily in everyday American life. Thirty years ago, I suspect that the cultural tide would have favored increasing openness and public access to prescription drugs, as sentiment recognized their vital role in fighting formerly untreatable diseases and conditions, which in turn have helped extend human longevity in aggregate.  That generally sanguine view toward pharmaceuticals manifested itself through a new growing array of prescription providers: drugstores offered 24-hour branches and a drive-thru pharmacy, patients could renew prescriptions by phone or online, large departments stores increasingly embraced the introduction of pharmacies in a quiet corner.

While many—probably even most—drugs still achieve the commendable goals that they did in 1993, the factors listed above find an ignoble nexus in the opioid epidemic that has spawned numerous other social ills, of which homelessness is merely the most empirically evident.  The demand for fast-and-easy access to prescriptions has plateaued, and I’ve recognized this through articles in the past…often unintentionally.  While pharmacists have historically kept something to “banking hours”, a major selling point to drive-thru pharmacies was that they might remain open well after the walk-through entrance closed.  But that amenity is increasingly hard to find.  Whether it’s a dying discounter chain like Kmart eliminating its pharmacy division, or a drugstore stalwart like Walgreens closing the majority of its 24-hour operations, a variety of socioeconomic, labor, political, and cultural variables have shrunk the pool of retailers honoring prescriptions and selling pharmaceuticals.

More recently, a trip along a rural highway, south of nowhere and quite a bit north of somewhere, revealed a new surprise (at least for me):

scaled-down drive-thru pharmacy in Franklinton, NC

Sure, it’s a Walgreens—been there, done that.  But it has the word “Pharmacy” under the familiar logo.  Yeah, I get it: Walgreens is a pharmacy.  But there’s another factor at play here:

scaled-down drive-thru pharmacy in Franklinton, NC

This Walgreens is a pharmacy and nothing more.  Not really a drugstore.  Just a place to get prescriptions.  In a building considerably smaller than the usual Walgreens chain—about the size of a freestanding Starbucks.

I’ve noted in the past that drugstores are an ungainly hybrid: they basically feature a convenience store shopping model, with inflated prices that come with the ease of parking, walking a short distance to the entrance door, going in, grabbing the essentials one might find at a grocery store, then checking out.  Prices are higher than most supermarkets, but the process is faster.  The selection is usually a bit healthier than a convenience store like a 7-Eleven, and the atmosphere feels cleaner and more savory, generally speaking.  Most importantly, at least from a business standpoint, is that the prescription drugs at Walgreens and CVS serve as a major driver of their revenue.  A convenience store will never feature a highly skilled (and commensurately remunerated) expert like a pharmacist; a drugstore like Walgreens cannot function without a coterie of trained professionals.

So what happens when Walgreens strips away the “everything else” from its drugstore typology?  That seems to be what the people of Franklinton, North Carolina are starting to learn.  This town of 2,500 is far enough away to eschew the “suburb” label, at least for now; there is at least five miles of nothing between it and the unambiguous suburbs of Raleigh like Wake Forest.  But since it’s clearly a town with a street grid that predates the automobile, Franklinton doesn’t fit the exurban standard of mostly new development.  Yet it’s still close enough within Raleigh’s orbit to function as a good test market—a role not typical of purely rural communities.  Like most of metro Raleigh, Franklinton is growing, and with growth comes changes in development patterns.  This drive-thru pharmacy sans drugstore is brand new apparently, having not yet opened when Google Street View came by in August 2023.  And here’s what the drive-thru pharmacy’s big opening left in its wake:

Just six hundred feet away and part of the same strip mall, the photo above captures what was a normal, full-sized Walgreens, complete with all the convenience store merchandise one would expect.  All the architectural signals remain: the red awnings, the chamfered wall to the entrance door, the brick and stucco skin.  It’s unmistakable.  The sign out front still announces its impending closure.

So did this Walgreens close because it lacked a drive-thru pharmacy?  Well, no.  Most Walgreens that use this design have a drive thru, and this location was no different.

I can’t say exactly why the branch closed, moved a stone’s throw away, and stripped away all of what makes it a drugstore.  I can only surmise, just as I did when I implied that Franklinton is still within the orbit of the test market that is Raleigh.  Simply put, I haven’t seen this before, at least not from a Walgreens.  The entire appearance is new.  However, like the more conventional operation that closed a few weeks ago, it still retains the drive-thru pharmacy component.

scaled-down drive-thru pharmacy in Franklinton, NC

So it really adopts a lean-and-mean approach toward connecting people with prescription drugs.  It’s compact, and, aside from the entrance, designed like a fortification.

I don’t know what the supply chain is for something as specialized, valuable, and potentially dangerous as a prescription drug, but I’d imagine this drive-thru pharmacy Walgreens (minus the convenience store products) obviates the need for a real loading dock.  Wholesaling and bulk shipments just don’t correlate much to bespoke customer requests, which is what prescriptions really are.  The tight openings are easier to monitor, as is the constrained size of the interior.

And monitoring may be the critical factor here.  In this era of escalating retail theft, the ability to supervise points of ingress and egress becomes ever more essential to a drugstore’s bottom line.  And Walgreens, probably more than most retailers (perhaps even worst of all) has suffered pronounced loss from permissive attitudes toward shoplifting in some parts of the country.  Windows are extremely limited at this scaled-down Walgreens, and those few at the front entrance benefit from extra security from a roll-down gate, visible in the first two photos.

scaled-down drive-thru pharmacy in Franklinton, NC

Additionally, by stripping away everything but its pharmaceutical basics, this Walgreens location almost certainly no longer serves the goods most lucrative among organized shoplifting rings: detergent, cosmetics, certain toiletries.  Customers to this Walgreens come for one purpose: medicine, either over-the-counter (if they even sell that) or prescription. While people can browse for fifteen minutes or more at a drugstore that sells food and make-up and greeting cards, anyone who lingers at this drive-thru pharmacy will immediately arouse suspicion.  And yes, with fewer products to purchase, this compact prototype gives Walgreens the opportunity to cut a few clerks—which, though considerably lower paid, than pharmacists, allows the company to focus on the skilled workers who handle its most lucrative product.

I could be wrong on all counts.  But the fact remains: a normal Walgreens closed and this opened.  And, since I haven’t seen this prototype before, maybe Franklinton has unusually high crime and this spot suffered from repeated shoplifting.  But I think the Walgreens company is capitalizing on the test-market nature of this fast-growing area. It can’t keep hemorrhaging merchandise, and yes, it’s not impossible to find examples where even the pharmacists and prescription drugs suffer criminal theft.  Given that the booming nature of the Tarheel State makes it a lucrative place to test new consumer innovations, the nothing-but-the-drugs approach at least shows an attempt to stanch to diminishing opportunities to connect Americans with their prescriptions—and we might see this pint-sized model elsewhere before long.  Who knows—maybe next time they’ll convert a shuttered Starbucks.

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13 thoughts on “Drive-thru pharmacy: a tactic to prevent merchandise shrinkage…by shrinking?

  1. DianaLeigh

    This is a first view for me of this streamlined approach to a drugstore. Your explanations for this model seem reasonable. I will pay attention as to any new examples in the large city (Indianapolis) I live in. Retail is changing so rapidly these days and the area of pharmaceuticals has been changing rapidly for over a decade. This is a real surprise though.
    A question: what did you mean in your first paragraph when you stated pharmaceuticals’ “ indirect but undeniable role in organized crime syndicates.”

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for writing! I had to offer a hyperlink to cite the reference. A lot of the illicit substances getting trafficked across the southern border are ingredients to prescription drugs intended for medical purposes, developed by American pharmaceutical companies, but now being used as ingredients in opioids or other highly addictive recreational drugs. I don’t think these pharmaceutical companies are overtly or deliberately supplying Latin American gangs with chemicals…but they are the ones developing them, and perhaps handling trade secrets irresponsibility, so that people with ill-intent can develop them and smuggle them.

      Then again, we also know that some prescription opioids are going to patients as perfectly legal painkillers, the patients get addicted, doctors keep refiling prescriptions until they don’t, and then the patients seek “other methods” to get their fill.

      That’s probably a radical oversimplification of what’s going on, but at least it offers a hint.

      Reply
  2. Rochelle Malone Allen

    Ughh I hate it we just got one on the eastside. To many ppl in the area used a full size store when you live in a food desert.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I had no idea there was one out there. This is the first time I’ve seen such a thing! Did a normal-size Walgreens close at the same time this one opened?

      Reply
  3. Astara Zayas Freil

    I saw online that 74% of Walgreens’ revenue in 2022 came from prescription. This was up 11% from 2013. Now even if these numbers aren’t 100% accurate, I believe it. If some of your largest sources of complication and overhead were arising from only 26% of your business, maybe you become more profitable by eliminating that. I believe most people order non-emergent supplies online and have them delivered. This may be a part of a strategic plan to optimize offerings for brick and mortar versus online. I haven’t seen this here in Fl yet, but it makes a ton of sense.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I gotta say, it’s always pretty rad when my friends and followers do work for me when I’m too lazy! I usually write about what I see after taking the photos, and dig around to learn more–especially if numbers back up my premise, but I try to eat a slice of humble pie when it turns out my premise is wrong. In this case, it didn’t even occur to me that there might be numbers to support it. Kudos and thanks for finding this out already!

      It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Even though most other goods at drugstores are marked up (at least compared to supermarkets and discounters like Walmart/Target), they still probably don’t make as much as they do through the pharmacy biz. So why not separate the pharm and leave other businesses to pick up the slack with candy and cosmetics? Pharmaceuticals will also always stay behind a counter, so they’re much less prone to shoplifting (or outright thievery if things get really bad).

      The one factor that makes the pharmacy element tricky is the high labor costs for the very skilled workers that run pharmacies. Median salaries for pharmacists are high. But–let’s face it–so are the costs of the drugs they mete out.

      Hopefully this approach works better for Walgreens. One of the other commenters on my blog noted that Indy had a similar location to this one, over on the east side. Little did I know…

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        One contributing factor in that gen merch trend at Walgreens has undoubtedly been the explosive growth of the “Dollar” chains.

        Another question to ask about the location you highlighted is “how many dollar stores are within a mile?”

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Good question. There’s a Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar all at the same general interchange. All within a five-minute walk. I guess I’m still confused as to why Dollar Stores would be resilient to merchandise “shrinkage”–is everything in them just so low-value? I presume dollar stores don’t care cosmetics or perfumes that are popular theft targets at Walgreens–but I’d imagine they do carry household cleaners and detergents (albeit off-brand ones). I know it’s been many years since everything in a dollar store genuinely sold for a dollar.

          The high value of pharmaceuticals, the pre-engineered added layer of protection, and the easier ability to monitor people who enter the store for ulterior motives are all reasons I can see why Walgreens might increasingly pursue the pharmacy-only route. I only hope we don’t reach a point where pharmacists need extra security to feel safe doing their jobs.

          Reply
  4. Jo Loren

    The same thing occurred about two years ago here in Black Mountain , NC, a small town in Western North Carolina. Walgreens bought out many Rite-Aid Drug stores including one here. They then closed it and tore it down, subsequently building a tiny Walgreens Pharmacy nearby. The new “pharmacy” is a stand-alone blockade with a drive-thru window. Inside the building is barren looking with a few medical type supplies on the shelves. It is very unpopular. One reason is the erratic hours of operation. Often there has been a sign on the door stating it is closed for the day on a weekday, problematic when you need a prescription.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      “stand-alone blockade”…what a great description! They remind me of drive-thru Starbucks, except that Starbucks would try to be more open and inviting with windows on at least two sides. The windows in these Walgreens seem more like a reluctant addition, to help convince people there’s not some illicit activity going on inside them.

      I appreciate your description of the interior. Maybe someday I’ll check one out, though I’d imagine the pharmacists get really suspicious if someone walks in, lingers for a minute or two, then lingers without a purchase.

      I understand that prescription drugs are far more profitable for a business like Walgreens (and thus they have more of an incentive to keep them protected with fewer windows to their buildings), but this seems like it could easily be a precursor to a time when almost all prescription drug business gets pushed into online order/delivery. Which brings about a whole new array of potential problems…

      Reply

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