A step too far with food

August 10, 2011

Walgreens’ attempt to build baskets with front-end candy sales is hard to reconcile with its health image.

While drug stores have stepped up their trip-building food game significantly, Walgreens has been particularly aggressive with prepared foods, foods for every daypart, chilled beverages, the Duane Reade private label and more.

However, the pushy selling of candy bars at the checkout is one of its latest strategies to help build basket size. On a recent visit to a Walgreens, The Lempert Report was paying for several items when the cashier pointed to the countertop display of king-size candy bars.  “Would you like to buy a candy bar,” the cashier asked. “No thanks,” we replied. “You could help me win a contest. I could win a shopping spree,” she said. “I’d like to help you, but the candy doesn’t help me,” we responded.

In our view, this brief exchange crosses the line. If the drug store stands primarily for health, and candy bars – as tasty, tempting and profitable as they are – contribute to obesity, isn’t the message to shoppers that Walgreens cares more about its bottom line than the people buying goods there?

Indeed, State Representative Charlie Brown (D-Gary, Indiana) recently wrote to Walgreens President and CEO Greg Wasson, stating, “While your business certainly cannot be criticized for seeking to make a profit, such profit-making at the expense of public health is both irresponsible as well as disingenuous,” the Northwest Indiana Times reported. A chain spokesperson responded that the chainwide program to sell one more item also includes skin care, batteries, almonds and other items, according to the paper.

Still, it’s hard for The Lempert Report to reconcile its latest Walgreens experience with the corporate initiative to provide more nutritious food and health care to under-served communities by opening 100 or more food oasis stores within five years. Noting that nearly half of Walgreens stores operate in areas lacking access to fresh food, Wasson has involved Walgreens in an initiative between First Lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America to fight childhood obesity.

We know which Walgreens behavior we like best.