Walgreens Brings Online Order Pickup to Pharmacy Drive-Thrus

Retailer embraces a fulfillment option uncommon outside of QSR

a walgreens sign
The retailer implemented the new service in "a few short weeks." Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Key insight:

Pharmacy chain Walgreens is bringing the order online, pick up in the drive-thru concept pioneered by quick-service restaurants (QSR) to retail, offering a limited selection of products online for pickup at one of 7,300 pharmacy drive-thrus in the U.S.

The selection includes more than 100 items such as cleaning supplies, paper goods, over-the-counter medicines, first aid supplies and baby formula.

That’s up from the 60 products announced in March and, at the time, customers could not order beforehand—they had to request products at the drive-thru window. If there were no customers waiting, pharmacy staff procured the additional items and handed them over. If there were cars waiting, however, customers were given a time to return to finalize their transactions.

A Walgreens spokesperson said customers are not required to have a prescription order to use the new drive-thru pickup service. However, a press release noted pricing for drive-thru orders may differ from in-store items.

The retailer said it’s all about helping customers shop quickly and easily during the pandemic, teasing “additional digital enhancements and pick-up options” that may be announced as early as this month. (The service is not available in Connecticut after a change in state regulations, which prohibit pharmacy drive-thrus from selling retail products.)

“During this current Covid-19 pandemic, we recognized the need for safe, alternative shopping options that helped promote social distancing,” said Walgreens president Richard Ashworth in a statement. “As a result, we quickly developed and launched this newest digital service … in a manner of just a few short weeks.”

It’s a spin on buy online pick up in store, or BOPIS, which first surfaced as a retail trend in 2018 and went mainstream last year, with orders growing by 39%, according to data from Adobe Analytics.

Retailers like Walmart and Target, as well as grocery chains, invested in click-and-collect options in 2019 and saw an uptick in consumers as a result. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is pushing adoption even further as consumers seek ways to procure goods with minimal contact.

As retailers increasingly provide BOPIS, Chris Beland, vice president in Gartner’s marketing practice and head of its pharmaceutical and emerging sectors teams, said it’s a strong move by any pharmacy to jump on the trend—and two characteristics of pharmacies in particular position them to best capitalize.

“First, most OTC products and many prescription products are acute in nature. You need them when you need them,” Beland said. “Even prioritized delivery of those products may not be fast enough for the consumer.”

Pharmacies’ second advantage lies in their infrastructure: the presence of a staffed drive-thru in many locations, which is not common among retailers outside of QSR.

“People need immediate access to these products and will continue to go out for them,” Beland added. “Pharmacies that capitalize on that behavior and make the addition of other goods easy have a real opportunity to outpace the competition.”

But, according to Kyle Rees, director in Gartner’s marketing practice, other retailers are capitalizing on the drive-thru concept as well.

General supply chain Blain’s Farm and Fleet, for example, has allowed customers to order online and pick up in a designated drive-thru area since 2016. (However, the regional retailer only has 42 locations, so Walgreens’ initiative marks a much larger expansion of the service.)

And, Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali added, retailers like Walmart and Target offer similar functionality, although they’re not configured precisely as drive-thrus.

“[Retailer] Auchan in France has the drive-thru model, but it’s not commonplace in the U.S.,” Kodali said. “There are some grocers like Harris Teeter, which have a curbside drive-thru lane, but a person brings things out to you—it’s hard to put a grocery order through a window.”

Believe it or not, beleaguered department store Sears actually tested an early concept called Mygofer in 2009, in which customers placed orders via computers at the front of a store and received goods in a delivery bay outside. It was retired in 2013.

However, its disappearance isn’t an indication of a lack of promise for the concept. “It failed because it was Sears,” Kodali said.

Overall, however, drive-thru pickup helps retailers increase capacity through existing fulfillment channels—and eases stress on employees, Rees said.

“This is a smart move to reduce strain on retail associates—many who are working double duty to support in-store and online orders—by funneling resources to fulfill specific order types through a designated pickup area,” he added.

@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.