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Focus on the loyalty card as the definitive barometer of pharmacy success, not won/lost ESI patients

DEERFIELD, Ill. — Walgreens last Wednesday reported November sales of $5.9 billion, a decrease of 3.9% versus the same period last year. However, the company also noted it had enrolled 38 million customers for its new loyalty card program, which debuted in September. 

And while much of the discussion around Walgreens' performance over this past year has been focused on the chain's exit and subsequent return to Express Scripts, it's a little unrealistic to look at Walgreens' monthly comps right now and measure the chain's success in getting those patients back. (Incidentally, about 40% of those customers have come back to the Walgreens pharmacy camp, speculated Credit Suisse research analyst Ed Kelly.) For example, in the comparable year-ago period Walgreens was still a part of the Express Scripts network. And last year results didn't have the significant drag of a major hurricane that interrupted operations of a number of stores for the better part of a week, either. 

Better apple-to-apple comparisons will come at the end of January 2013, when you can measure the performance of a Walgreens fresh out of the Express Scripts network to a Walgreens folded back into that network. But even those comparisons won't tell the full story, because Walgreens at the end of January 2013 will have well more than the 38 million enrolled loyalty card members that they have now. And while it may be early days for Walgreens' loyalty card program as compared to the offers from Rite Aid or CVS Caremark, you can't discount the influence those 38 million-plus best customers will have on performance on go-forward. It's the experience differentiator that will help Walgreens — and others — compete with value-oriented retailers and a still-weakened consumer. 

Loyalty cards are also the common denominator that gives each of the big three drug channel retailers the confidence that they can capture the same patient. 

What do you think will be the big experience differentiator going forward? Is it loyalty cards, or is it something else? And between the big three, who has the inside bead on keeping their patients coming back for more? Post a comment below! 

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