Why Is Walgreens Selling Sushi? The Changing Business of Drugstores

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Drugstores are generally considered as little more than necessary and convenient. But now that some Walgreens boast nail salons, cafes serving sushi and smoothies, and impressive selections of beer, wine, liquor, and cigars, can a drugstore be thought of as “crazy awesome”?

A 23,500-square-foot new Walgreens in Hollywood—which replaced an old Borders location—has indeed been described by a Los Angeles Magazine writer as “deep breath—crazy awesome”:

This, the most beautiful Walgreens I’ve ever seen, has daily hand-rolled sushi, a fro-yo bar and a soda fountain with 130 different Coca-Cola drinks. But the feature that got me oohing and ahhing nonstop was (surprise, surprise) its liquor section.

High-end tequila and vodka, decent prices on staples like Beefeater’s Gin and Maker’s Mark, a broad selection of wines and macro and microbrews alike, even cigars and a “Virtual Bartender” kiosk to help round up ingredients for specified cocktails—they’re all in the mix at a place consumers usually associate with deodorant and shampoo.

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The Hollywood store is one of many remodeled or freshly opened locations that aim to transform what shoppers think Walgreens—and the word “drugstore”—can mean. A year ago, Walgreens introduced its new flagship store in downtown Chicago: a two-story building on historic State Street where customers can enjoy hand-rolled sushi, made-to-order smoothies and malted milkshakes, artisanal cheeses, hundreds of wines, on-site manicures and eyebrow grooming, and more.

Similarly upscale, multifaceted new Walgreens are opening soon in San Francisco, Boston, dozens of spots in Florida, and elsewhere. Hundreds of Walgreens locations are expected to get the “Well Experience” makeover, which is what the company calls the new concept.

As reported by Forbes, Walgreens CEO Gregory Wasson has explained that the glitzy new locations are meant to demonstrate that the old ideas that limit what stores can do and sell are fading:

“You’re beginning to see the blurring of the retail channels in America,” Wasson told more than 2,000 shareholders Wednesday afternoon at the company’s annual meeting on Chicago’s Navy Pier. “Frankly, that is what we are doing with our ‘Well Experience’ concept. We are deliberately blurring those channels.”

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The blurring goes far beyond drugstores. For a while now, many Target and Walmart stores have had food selections that are as good as supermarkets. Even dollar stores are increasing fresh food offerings, in the hopes of becoming modern-day general stores, rather than simply spots to pick up cheap party favors, household goods, and tchotchkes. In addition to its boutiques-within-the-department store concept, part of JCPenney’s major overhaul includes salons and cafes with customers are expected to visit before and after browsing the aisles.

Increasingly, it seems as if retailers feel like it’s not enough to do one thing well. It’s not enough for a drugstore to just be a quick and easy spot for completing errands, and it’s not enough for a department store to simply sell fashion and furniture. Instead, stores are attempting to become destinations, places where shoppers want to come, linger, and hang out—and do so regularly, not only when the need for a birthday gift or more shampoo arises.

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Will shoppers buy into this concept? So far, JCPenney is having a rough go of things, but its problems go far beyond the fact that shoppers aren’t hanging out in stores long enough. The success or failure of the new Walgreens stores will largely depend on whether shoppers can be convinced that they need to pop in multiple times per week—for the purposes of running errands as always, but also to stock up on booze, get their nails down, and perhaps even grab some sushi or a smoothie. And in the same way some consumers will never be game to hang out at JCPenney for hours, it’ll be a difficult sell to convince some shoppers that they should eat sushi in the same place they buy diapers and wrinkle cream.