We shopped at Walgreens and CVS to see which was a better drugstore, and there was a clear winner

CVS 0304Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

  • Walgreens and CVS are drugstore chains that sell everything from groceries to greeting cards.
  • Both stores have pharmacies that offer services like free flu shots.
  • Walgreens and CVS offer similar rewards programs that can earn shoppers major discounts.
  • When we visited neighboring locations of both stores, we found that the atmospheres were drastically different. Walgreens was a bright and clean place to shop, while CVS was a mess.

No matter where you go, it seems like there's always a Walgreens or a CVS store that's just around the corner.

The two drugstores carry everything from groceries and cosmetics to household supplies and greeting cards. Both stores are also pharmacies and offer services like free flu shots, and both have rewards cards that offer serious savings.

The CVS ExtraCare card offers shoppers perks like rewards-member-only pricing and 2% back in ExtraBucks Rewards each time you shop. ExtraBucks Rewards add up to additional perks and discounts for shoppers. Walgreens offers a similar rewards program - the Balance Rewards program allows shoppers to earn points for every dollar spent, which can add up to discounts on future purchases. At both stores, almost every product has a rewards-member-only price that's a few dollars less than the regular price.

Both Walgreens and CVS operate between 8,000 and 10,000 stores in the United States.

But the two stores' atmospheres couldn't be more different. When we visited a Walgreens store in Westchester, New York, it was bright, clean, and well-organized. Upbeat music was playing, and there were plenty of people shopping around. However, when we visited a CVS store just five minutes away, it was dark and messy. There were dark gray carpeted floors, empty soda cans, old shopping lists, and no shortage of empty shelves. Security TVs loomed over every aisle, and it was eerily quiet.

As drastic as the difference was in the environment of the two stores, they're performing similarly. In the second quarter of 2018, same-store sales were up 2.4% at Walgreens. At CVS, which is in the midst of a merger with Aetna, same-store sales were up 1.6% in the first quarter of 2018.

Here's what it was like shopping at each store:

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First, I visited a CVS in Westchester, New York.

First, I visited a CVS in Westchester, New York.

The first part of the store I saw when walking in was the cosmetics section. It carried all of the traditional drugstore makeup brands including Maybelline, L'Oreal, and Covergirl. Prices typically ranged from $8 to $20 for a single product.

The first part of the store I saw when walking in was the cosmetics section. It carried all of the traditional drugstore makeup brands including Maybelline, L'Oreal, and Covergirl. Prices typically ranged from $8 to $20 for a single product.

Almost everything had a bright yellow tag advertising an ExtraCare cardholder deal, like this "buy one, get one half-off" promotion. However, a lot of the shelves were empty or seemed to be falling apart.

Almost everything had a bright yellow tag advertising an ExtraCare cardholder deal, like this "buy one, get one half-off" promotion. However, a lot of the shelves were empty or seemed to be falling apart.

As I walked further back, I found where the hair accessories were, but the section was a mess. There was an empty soda can that had just been left behind, and a lot of the hairbands were tangled up. There seemed to be as many products on the bottom of the display as there were hanging up.

As I walked further back, I found where the hair accessories were, but the section was a mess. There was an empty soda can that had just been left behind, and a lot of the hairbands were tangled up. There seemed to be as many products on the bottom of the display as there were hanging up.

There were a few jewelry shelves in the back. They carried products that were similar to what you might find at a store like Claire's for under $10.

There were a few jewelry shelves in the back. They carried products that were similar to what you might find at a store like Claire's for under $10.

There were also greeting cards ...

There were also greeting cards ...

... office supplies ...

... office supplies ...

... and a ton of random products situated throughout the store.

... and a ton of random products situated throughout the store.

The pharmacy was also in the back of the store, and the aisles leading up to it carried every vitamin, cold medicine, and supplement imaginable. It looked like every single product carried a deal for members. It was hard to see the normal price because of how many bright yellow tags there were.

The pharmacy was also in the back of the store, and the aisles leading up to it carried every vitamin, cold medicine, and supplement imaginable. It looked like every single product carried a deal for members. It was hard to see the normal price because of how many bright yellow tags there were.

The pharmacy was also visible from the aisle of groceries. There was no area to wait by the pharmacy. There were people wandering around this area waiting for a pharmacist to be ready to help them.

The pharmacy was also visible from the aisle of groceries. There was no area to wait by the pharmacy. There were people wandering around this area waiting for a pharmacist to be ready to help them.

Near the groceries was a refrigerated aisle carrying drinks like milk, orange juice, and soda. The prices were on par with any other gas station or convenience store. Water bottles cost $1 to $3, for example.

Near the groceries was a refrigerated aisle carrying drinks like milk, orange juice, and soda. The prices were on par with any other gas station or convenience store. Water bottles cost $1 to $3, for example.

Generally speaking, it felt pretty disorganized. Cleaning supplies, pet food, sodas, and home repair tools were all squeezed into one corner of the store. Random beach chairs and coolers were stacked on top of the refrigerators.

Generally speaking, it felt pretty disorganized. Cleaning supplies, pet food, sodas, and home repair tools were all squeezed into one corner of the store. Random beach chairs and coolers were stacked on top of the refrigerators.

The photo department at the front of the store was completely silent.

The photo department at the front of the store was completely silent.

By the register were candy and gum, most of which cost under $2. Even here, there were empty shelves.

By the register were candy and gum, most of which cost under $2. Even here, there were empty shelves.

No one was at the register, and there were no employees in sight. Overall, the store was dark, had a lot of empty shelves, and was a mess. There were a lot of great deals offered to ExtraCare cardholders, but it wasn't a nice place to shop.

No one was at the register, and there were no employees in sight. Overall, the store was dark, had a lot of empty shelves, and was a mess. There were a lot of great deals offered to ExtraCare cardholders, but it wasn't a nice place to shop.

Next, I went to Walgreens, which was just five minutes away from the CVS.

Next, I went to Walgreens, which was just five minutes away from the CVS.

The cosmetics were at the front of the store here, too, and the same brands were carried. The prices were about the same as at CVS.

The cosmetics were at the front of the store here, too, and the same brands were carried. The prices were about the same as at CVS.

The store was much brighter much more organized. Empty shelves were few and far between, and all prices were clearly labeled.

The store was much brighter much more organized. Empty shelves were few and far between, and all prices were clearly labeled.

The store felt spacious compared to CVS, even though they're roughly the same size. Everything was more spread out, and instead of gray and red, everything was light blue and white, which made it feel cheery.

The store felt spacious compared to CVS, even though they're roughly the same size. Everything was more spread out, and instead of gray and red, everything was light blue and white, which made it feel cheery.

Most of the products carried at the two stores overlapped, like greeting cards ...

Most of the products carried at the two stores overlapped, like greeting cards ...

... cleaning and kitchen supplies ..

... cleaning and kitchen supplies ..

... and groceries. The grocery selection was nearly identical between the stores, but it was a lot less cluttered and easier to see each product at Walgreens.

... and groceries. The grocery selection was nearly identical between the stores, but it was a lot less cluttered and easier to see each product at Walgreens.

Like CVS, Walgreens sold sodas and other refrigerated drinks. The prices were about the same, but there was a greater variety to choose from at Walgreens.

Like CVS, Walgreens sold sodas and other refrigerated drinks. The prices were about the same, but there was a greater variety to choose from at Walgreens.

The pharmacy was a lot nicer at Walgreens. At CVS it was shoved in the back of the store, hidden behind aisles with no designated area to wait. Walgreens' pharmacy was spacious, had a waiting area, had a much bigger counter with more staff working, and was easier to find.

The pharmacy was a lot nicer at Walgreens. At CVS it was shoved in the back of the store, hidden behind aisles with no designated area to wait. Walgreens' pharmacy was spacious, had a waiting area, had a much bigger counter with more staff working, and was easier to find.

It sold about the same amount of supplements and cold medicines as CVS did, and the deals for rewards cardholders were about the same.

It sold about the same amount of supplements and cold medicines as CVS did, and the deals for rewards cardholders were about the same.

Unlike CVS, Walgreens' photo department had a line of people waiting to print photos, and an employee was there, ready to help. At the register, there were three people behind the counter as opposed to none. Walgreens was cleaner, offered more, and was generally a nicer place to shop.

Unlike CVS, Walgreens' photo department had a line of people waiting to print photos, and an employee was there, ready to help. At the register, there were three people behind the counter as opposed to none. Walgreens was cleaner, offered more, and was generally a nicer place to shop.
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