Courtesy CVS Health
- CVS Health operates 10,000 pharmacies, where you can buy soda and candy, and also pick up a prescription. The company recently acquired the health insurer Aetna, too.
- Five years ago, CVS stopped selling tobacco products, as the company increasingly focused on the healthcare part of its business.
- But a top company executive told us CVS won’t stop selling soda or other unhealthy food any time soon, even as the company increasingly provides medical care in its stores.
- We spoke with CVS Chief Marketing Officer Norman de Greve about how CVS is working to balance what customers want with what’s good for their health.
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In 2018, CVS Health acquired Aetna, combining a chain of nearly 10,000 pharmacies dispensing prescriptions and selling snacks and soda with one of the biggest US health insurers.
The $70 billion acquisition accelerated a reckoning for CVS over the purpose of its drug stores. As consumers increasingly shop online, they’re coming into CVS stores less for things like milk, bread and toilet paper. Instead, CVS wants consumers to think of the stores as a place for healthcare, where they can get their dry skin examined, or check in about their diabetes.
"That’s where the growth is going to have to come from," CVS Health Chief Marketing Officer Norman de Greve said in a recent interview with Business Insider.
As CVS starts to focus its physical presence more on health, the stores’ other inventory comes into question. Already, sales of items like snacks and drinks fell 1.8% in the first quarter of 2019. Sales are increasing for healthcare and beauty items.
Still, even as CVS focuses on health, de Greve said the company needs to keep things like candy and soda in its stores, so that people don’t stop coming in. He said CVS is trying to strike the right balance between enabling unhealthy behaviors and being so sterile that nobody swings by.
"What we have to do is have a store that people enjoy coming into," de Greve said. "What we also have to do is have a store that also helps you take a proactive step forward on your health."
Courtesy CVS HealthDr. Dora Hughes, a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University told Business Insider she’s optimistic that CVS will be able to adapt to a healthier future, given the steps the organization took in removing tobacco.
In 2014, CVS stopped selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, a move that was widely applauded by the healthcare community but hasn’t been followed by other national pharmacies.
"It shows they’re not afraid to take bold steps that will hurt their profit margin to advance health," Hughes said.
More recently, CVS has made a push to test out supplements and vitamins to make sure there are no additives, and it only stocks sunscreens with SPF 15 and higher.
Still, pop into a CVS and you’ll find sodas, candy bars, and other items that are tasty treats but can contribute to health problems. In recent years, CVS has made a push to move candy bars and sugary drinks farther away in stores, prioritizing healthier snacks and drinks with less added sugar, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017.
Getting rid of an item like soda entirely could mean that a customer doesn’t even come in to CVS, de Greve said.
"Here’s the thing about America. if you put soda on sale on your circular, you will move the entire country’s sales," de Greve said. "You decide you’re not going to be in that business at all the people who value that go somewhere else."
To be sure, Hughes said, there’s no safe level of tobacco use. "That’s not true with other items. In moderation, conceivably they can be part of a healthy diet," Hughes said.
CVS isn’t alone in grappling with these questions. Hughes pointed to how health systems and healthcare companies have been moving toward healthier options, after years of having fast food options in hospital cafeterias. "I think there’s increasing attention being paid to this dynamic more so than ever," she said.
De Greve said CVS has prioritized laying out stores differently to help nudge people toward healthier options.
"Would I like a store that is all health? Yes. But I don’t think it would be as effective as a store that people come into every day with their kids who pick up a toy car and get a lollipop, because we’d lose the relationship," de Greve said. "It’s a real balance you have to play."
Ideally, as consumers start to think of CVS as a place to go for their health, their snacking habits might start to change for the healthier too, leading to more changes in what CVS stocks.
"I think that all the ideas can coexist, but I do think that we’re going to see some changes in everyday business practices," Hughes said.
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