CVS revives notion of a general store for the 21st century


Last week, CVS Caremark Corp. reported $1 billion in earnings in just the past three months. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 15, 2012

It’s almost midnight at a CVS not far from Capitol Hill, and as I’m stumbling through the aisles looking for baby Tylenol, I spot a congressional aide stocking up on rubber gloves, a cop buying Twizzlers and Red Bull, and a high-heeled prostitute pawing through the L’eggs pantyhose.

You can say America is a place of red states and blue states. We may never, ever come together on the issue of Edward vs. Jacob in the seemingly endless “Twilight” saga.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

But even in a nation divided between the 1 percent and the 47 percent, it may be safe to say that 100 percent of us eventually land at the CVS.

Quietly, voraciously, the retail monster once known as Consumer Value Stores has been taking over America. With thousands of stores nationwide and an inventory that ranges from Chia pets to syringes to hummus, the former pharmacy has revived the notion of a general store for the 21st century.

And they’ve done it with dizzying financial results. Last week, Rhode Island-based CVS Caremark reported $1 billion in earnings in just the past three months. That’s $1 billion in nail clippers, Hostess cupcakes and punchy, 4 a.m. shopping sprees for cobalt eyeliner!

The takeover is nearly complete in the nation’s capital, where a new CVS store in Northwest Washington tip­toed over to city regulators and applied for a license to sate Woodley Park’s thirst for beer and wine. Already, some of the neighborhood’s residents are up in arms about the proposal, but CVS is pushing ahead anyway.

“Roughly half of our 7,400 stores sell some combination of beer, wine and spirits,” CVS public relations director Mike DeAngelis explained to me. “Generally speaking, if liquor sales are allowed by law, we will seek a license to sell.”

The level of logical efficiency that dictates that the wine/aspirin and beer/condom combo should be sold in the same place already exists in many states, including Virginia and, of course, California.

“That’s the one thing I miss most about California,” a fellow West Coast immigrant recently told me. (All the drugstores carry liquor out there, right by the Coppertone, dude!)

“You can have the sun, the surf and all that. I just hate not being able to buy gauze bandages and Sam Adams at the same time.”

True that. And how often the two went together at certain times in our lives.

What once was a small New England pharmacy founded by a couple of brothers has exploded into a sprawling network of needs-fulfilling stores. (With 8,000 stores, Walgreens also vies for our hearts and minds but posted just half the earnings of CVS in the third quarter of 2012.)

Just about every problem related to being a human can be solved at CVS.

You go there for pushpins for a last-minute school project and condoms to avoid such trips in your future; for midnight munchies if you’re pretending to be in Washington state or Colorado; or for a remote-control whoopee cushion. Just because.

Last spring, CVS stores across the region became even more than general stores. They were treated like banks by robbers who were stealing Tide detergent and various grooming aides to use as cash equivalents in street drug sales. Seriously. I talked to a clerk who watched a knifepoint robbery over a jug of Tide.

It used to be the mark of how truly primitive my husband was, that he would survive not on fast food, but rather on CVS food whenever I left town. Chips, soda, Lorna Doones, beef jerky and the occasional can of Vienna sausage.

But recently, the smart marketing folks at CVS figured out that most people aren’t like him. Normal folks only buy drugstore items once every five or 10 days, according to trade journals.

But groceries? The marketing studies show we buy food every day or two.

So move over Fritos and hello salad, sandwich bread and mandarin oranges.

With the addition of more groceries and fresh foods, the CVS and their legion of indifferent clerks are sure to get more of your dollars, right?

And wine and beer are even more profitable. In the application documents filed with the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, Vernon Goad, CVS’s field marketing manager, said the chain needs to sell consumables to survive because “current government policies are lowering the reimbursement rates for pharmaceutical products.”

In other words, the government isn’t ballooning CVS’s profits by paying a bunch for medication, so the answer to keep expanding past $1 billion is to switch to pedaling booze!

Some of the folks who live in Woodley Park are protesting the license, and the board will hold a hearing on the matter next month.

Of course, there’s the fear of public drunkenness and the crime spike that follows alcohol. I get it. I hear the sounds of six packs outside my windows on Friday nights. But you know what the real fear is?

That they won’t carry Sam Adams.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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