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):
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:
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.
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.
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.