A drugstore without drugs? Walgreens opens only Chicago store without a pharmacy

By | November 19, 2018

If you’re looking to fill a prescription, the newest Walgreens in the West Loop is not for you.

The company opened its only location in the city without a pharmacy last month at 1051 W. Randolph St., on the first floor of the building that houses McDonald’s new corporate headquarters.

A sign in front of the store asks customers if they “Need a pharmacy?” and directs them to the nearby Walgreens at Halsted and Monroe streets.

For a global network of drugstores that got its start on the South Side more than a century ago, the store represents a major shift from its other 120 stores in the city and from most of the nearly 10,000 other stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Prescription drugs and other pharmaceutical services made up nearly 70 percent of sales at stores in the U.S., according to its 2017 annual report. Worldwide, the company filled more than 1 billion monthly prescriptions last year.

While employees said they were told the store was the first in Chicago history to open without a pharmacy, company spokesman Phil Caruso could not confirm that. The company has a handful of stores in other urban areas — including New York and Las Vegas — that don’t sell prescription medications, he said.

Still, of the 100 stores listed as in or near New York City on Walgreens’ website, only four don’t have pharmacies, and all of those are under the Duane Reade brand — which was acquired by Walgreens in 2010.

“It is rare for one of our stores to not have a pharmacy,” Caruso said.

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Caruso declined to comment further or answer questions why the new store opened without a pharmacy.

The other 120 Walgreens in the city have pharmacies, including this one downtown. | John Kim/Sun-Times file photo

The other 120 Walgreens in the city have pharmacies, including this one downtown. | John Kim/Sun-Times file photo

‘It’s inevitable’

Simon Pickard, a professor of pharmacy systems, outcomes and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he believes the new Walgreens might be representative of where the industry is going. With dwindling payments from public and private insurers and competition from online companies like Amazon, the chain needs to look for other ways to stay profitable. Retail pharmacies can be more expensive to maintain.

“I would imagine it’s inevitable that traditional brick-and-mortar pharmacies become less prevalent,” he said.

He said more and more drugs will be dispensed by pharmacists working in high-volume pharmacy centers that send patients medicine via mail. Walgreens has invested heavily in online and mail-order pharmacies.

Meanwhile, drugstores are trying to make more money from the sale of other products, especially cosmetics and skin-care products.

The new West Loop store sells pretty much all the other products typically found at Walgreens, including makeup, toiletries, booze and food. It offers photo and Western Union services, as well as FedEx drop-off and pickup.

The original Walgreens at 4134 S. Cottage Grove Ave. | Sun-Times file photo

Since the store’s beginnings, the company has always pushed its other products as a way to get customers in the door.

Charles R. Walgreen Sr. purchased the pharmacy in Barrett’s Hotel at Cottage Grove and Bowen avenues — where he worked — in 1901, according to a company history. A pharmacist, he made his own drugs. To bring people into his store in the winter, Walgreen began selling hot food prepared by his wife, Myrtle Walgreen, in 1910. Walgreens locations served  food until the 1980s.


The first malted milkshakes were also invented at Walgreens by Ivar “Pop” Coulson in 1922 and were first sold for 20 cents each. He used ice cream made in Walgreens’ factory in Chicago.

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The company, said John Bacon, author of “America’s Corner Store: Walgreens’ Prescription for Success,” has always been an innovator.

He said he had never heard of a Walgreens location without a pharmacy but said this could be a model they are prototyping.

“They’re also doing this basically on an experimental basis, I believe,” he said. “The whole business of pharmaceuticals has gotten so complicated with Medicaid and whatnot that they’re trying to see if they can probably make their life simpler without it,” he said.

He added the company similarly experimented with removing samples from their aisles at a few stores in the 1990s before implementing it everywhere.

In the West Loop, some customers don’t mind the new Walgreens doesn’t have a pharmacy.

“I just come here because I work right down the street,” said Matthew Gilbert, who comes to the store to buy snacks, gum or food for breakfast.

“It doesn’t bother me, only because I use the one where I work,” said Kristin Redfearn. She said she rarely goes to Walgreens for her pharmacy needs anyway, because she thinks it is overpriced.

The new store employs about 20 workers, Caruso said — but no pharmacist.

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