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CVS Extra Care Bucks vs. Walgreens Register Rewards

Updated on December 27, 2012

Drugstores are big business. The largest drug retailing chain in the United States is Walgreens, with over 8270 stores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The second largest chain is CVS, with over 7000 stores in 41 states and Puerto Rico. The average family of four spends $424 per year on drugs, $143 on medical supplies, and $769 on personal care products and services, for a total of $1336 per year on the types of products and services that are the bread and butter of these stores.

There are certainly situations where price is no object when it comes to making drugstore purchases. If you have a splitting headache or a bad case of poison ivy, you’ll gladly pay the full retail price. But if you plan ahead to stock your medicine cabinet and bathroom closets by buying products before you need them, you can find tremendous bargains at drugstores that beat what you’ll find virtually anywhere else. In many cases, you can get drugstore items for free or for only a fraction of their regular retail prices.

The key to buying items for free or at large discounts is to use the drugstore’s incentive coupons in combination with sales and/or manufacturer’s coupons. You earn incentive coupons by purchasing select items. To illustrate the power of this strategy, assume you’re planning ahead by stocking your medicine cabinet with razors. From the drugstore’s Sunday circular, you see a sale on Schick’s Hydro Razor: $9.99 instead of its regular price of $11.99. The circular also says you’ll earn a $4 incentive coupon for buying this razor, and you find a $4 manufacturer’s coupon in the Red Plum circular. At the register, you’re charged $5.99 (+ tax) after using the manufacturer’s coupon, but you get a $4 incentive coupon you can use for your next purchase, for a net cost of only $1.99 (+ tax). That’s an 84% discount!

Both Walgreens and CVS regularly provide incentive coupons for select products. At Walgreens, the incentive coupons are called “Register Rewards” (RR). They are printed out and handed to you with your receipt, and you can use them with your next transaction. At CVS, they are called “Extra Care Bucks” (ECB). They are printed on the bottom of your receipt, and can also be used with your next transaction. While both RRs and ECBs are incentive coupons, they are not equivalent. A close look at the fine print reveals differences which make CVS’ ECBs much more valuable than Walgreens’ RRs:

1. Incentive Coupons Per Transaction: At Walgreens, you can only earn one RR per transaction. For example, if in a single transaction you purchase two razors that should each generate a $4 RR, you’ll receive only a single $4 RR. In order to earn two $4 RRs, you’ll need to split your purchase into multiple transactions (and possibly incur the wrath of the person behind you in line!). In contrast, at CVS, you can earn multiple ECBs in one transaction. So if you purchase the two razors in one transaction, you’ll receive one ECB for $8 (and not tick off your co-shoppers).

2. Use of One Incentive Coupon to Generate Another Incentive Coupon on the Same Product: At Walgreen’s, if you redeem a RR against the same offer, you cannot receive another RR. For example, if you receive a first $4 RR by purchasing a first razor, you will not get a second $4 RR by getting back in line and purchasing a second razor using your first $4 RR. At CVS, you are allowed to earn a first $4 ECB by purchasing the first razor and then turn around and earn a second $4 ECB by purchasing the second razor while redeeming your first $4 ECB.

3. Cash vs. Manufacturer Coupon: Walgreens treats its RRs as manufacturer coupons. Logically, this makes no sense to me, since Walgreens is not a manufacturer and so it’s unclear why its coupons should be treated as manufacturer coupons. This logical twist is important because Walgreens’ coupon policy states: “The number of manufacturer coupons, including RR manufacturer coupons, must not exceed the number of items in the transaction.” So Walgreens will not let you use a total number of manufacturer coupons and RRs that exceeds the number of products you’re purchasing. To illustrate, assume you earned a $4 RR by buying a razor on your last trip to Walgreens. You now wish to buy a $10 bottle of Tide detergent using your $4 RR and a $2 Tide coupon. Walgreens will not allow you to use both coupons because it treats the $4 RR as a manufacturer coupon and then says you can’t use it with a second manufacturer coupon (i.e., the $2 Tide coupon). In contrast, CVS treats its ECB essentially like cash, and allows you to use them with manufacturer coupons and/or other ECBs. In the example, you can use your $4 ECB along with the $2 Tide coupon. If you also have a $2 ECB, you can use that too. This much more sense, since neither CVS nor Walgreens manufactures Tide laundry detergent.

You can buy drugs, medical supplies and personal care products at terrific prices (sometimes for free!) by understanding the reward and coupon policies of the major drugstore chains like Walgreens and CVS. Unfortunately, Walgreens has saddled its incentive coupon policy with nonsensical restrictions that can leave you standing in frustration at the checkout line. In contrast, CVS’ incentive coupon policy makes sense and helps you save money. In my mind, CVS is the clear winner in this battle of pharmacy giants.

What About Rite Aid?

The third-largest drug store chain in the United States is Rite Aid. Rite Aid has a program called +UP Rewards that is similar to CVS' ECB program and Walgreens' RR program. To participate in Rite Aid's +UP Rewards program, you must first sign up for a Wellness card, which provides other rewards for purchases. Then, to receive +UP Rewards, you show your Wellness card when purchasing products advertised as being +UP Rewards products. The +UP rewards are printed at the bottom of your receipt. This receipt can then be used for discounts on subsequent purchases from Rite Aid.

+UP Rewards can be used to purchase almost anything at Rite Aid, except for alcohol, cigarettes, prescriptions, gift cards and a few other items. More than one +UP Reward can be used in a single transaction, and +UP Rewards can be used in conjunction with manufacturer coupons. You can also use one +UP Reward to generate another +UP Reward on the same product. Thus, +UP Rewards appear to be more similar to CVS' ECB rewards than to Walgreens' RR rewards. It appears that the biggest problem with +UP Rewards is their narrow duration: they are not valid until 6:00 am the next day following your purchase, and they expire only two weeks after issuance.

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