Walgreens. I'm in there probably once a week. I even have a different store than my husband— I go to the one at Craycroft and Speedway; Ed uses the one on Speedway near Whole Foods. There are so many that you can be picky about location.
In fact, the chain is so ubiquitous as to be laughable — I once had young visitors who, riding across the city from Houghton Road to Gates Pass and the Desert Museum, starting counting Walgreens to pass the time. And yet, with the establishment of the Take Care Clinics (genius idea, terrific execution), the soothing blue color it has adopted to freshen up the ugly old red logo, and the slogan it has started flogging—"located at the corner of happy and healthy"— Walgreens is clearly working hard at polishing its image and positioning itself as a wellness brand.
So I think it's time to talk about the groceries.
I never buy food at Walgreens, but I'm interested in what its stocks because of something I once witnessed there.
I was stuck in a slow line at the pharmacy counter in the old store that used to be in the space where Bookmans Sports Exchange just opened up. I was right behind an overweight, elderly man whom I would have bet money on being pre-diabetic, at the least. As we stood there waiting for some intricate insurance snafu to get solved, I watched him eyeing a tin of "creme-filled" wafers on a display next to the line. Then looking away. Then looking back. Then picking it up and taking it with him to the counter. I watched him get lured into what I was pretty sure was a bad health decision—right there at the corner of happy and healthy.
Granted, a big part of the drugstore business has always been candy and alcohol—the big chains got started during Prohibition, which was great for drugstores since pharmacists were allowed to dispense whiskey by prescription. And drugstores have traditionally sold lots of candy—it's an entire aisle at Walgreens, and more before Valentine's Day and Halloween.
And yet, should a store that's peddling itself as your partner in wellness really be selling a gallon-size store brand (strangely called Nice!) of puffed cheese balls? Should it have two whole shelves devoted to mac and cheese—with a momentary interruption for Stove Top Stuffing? Should a soda special be its usual teaser out front? Why not just advertise cheap Coke and diabetes test strips together? (Oh, wait, I forgot. Walgreens doesn't discount medical supplies. Just the terrible products that make them necessary.)
I've seen the small rack of fresh fruit in the bigger, 24-hour store at Grant and Swan, and I understand that the chain, which is the only purveyor of groceries in an increasing number of neighborhoods, is trying harder than, say, Circle K or QuikTrip. And I do understand that produce is hard, that stores have to sell what people want at a price they're willing to pay, and that the people who have to walk (God help them) to buy groceries are lucky to have a store nearby.
Still, the preponderance of really awful fat-, salt-, sugar- and preservative-ridden food in Walgreens is strikingly dissonant with its messaging. You might even think it's trying to create more patients.
Of course Walgreens isn't evil; it's just a microcosm of the culture. We are fantastically confused on the subject of health, prevention and personal responsibility. Should a business that makes much of its money from disease try harder to market healthy choices to a public that may not want them? I don't know. It's a business. And businesses have no morals.
What I do know is that Michael Bloomberg—a human with a sense of moral responsibility—thought that, since he had power, he should try to de-normalize the 64-ounce soda. Of course the food and beverage industry did what it always does and started shrieking about liberty. And lots of smart people made fun of him.
But Bloomberg's proposed giant soda ban might have helped keep a few New Yorkers, anyway, off dialysis. His position was that if it saved one person from that miserable fate (which costs about $70,000 a year per patient, by the way), it would be worth it.
I'm with Mike.