If you forgot something on your grocery list or just need to pick something up in a pinch, drugstores may be your go-to. There’s usually one around the corner, and you can zip in and out quickly.
But there’s a cost for convenience. “Drugstores are now competing with huge chains and online options,” explains Benjamin Glaser, features editor with DealNews. “They charge a premium for those who can't wait to compare prices or get a delivery.”
We did some poking around to see what types of items at drugstores have the greatest markup. To keep things consistent, we compared the costs of regular-priced items online at CVS and Walgreens against some of the major big box retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco. Just keep in mind, some prices may have changed since the research for this story was completed (the week of May 21, 2017).
Here are 7 things you should never buy at a drugstore:
1. Prescription drugs
“Despite their name, drugstores are often the most expensive places to get your prescription drugs filled,” says Glaser. While there are a number of reasons why drugs in the U.S. are higher than in other countries, including the fact that drug manufacturers set their own prices, they can be significantly more expensive when purchased at a drugstore. It may be hard to escape these steep prices, especially since in 2016 CVS acquired 1,672 Target pharmacies around the country.
However, you can save big time on drugs at Costco. In fact, if your state law requires it, you don’t even need a membership to purchase prescription drugs. Just tell the door-checker you’re there to use the pharmacy. Among the top prescription drugs, the generic version of the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor (20 mg, 30 tablets) can be found at Costco for $18, versus $170 at CVS. For over-the-counter drugs, Extra Strength Tylenol (500 mg, 24 count) is $5.99 at Walgreens, while it’s $3.97 at Target and $4.86 at Wal-Mart.
2. Beauty products
You’re more likely to spend a pretty penny on beauty products at drugstores. Maybelline’s Great Lash Waterproof mascara will cost you $5.99 at CVS, but only $3.99 at Target. Need some face wash? A bottle of Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser at Walgreens is $12.49, but you can find it at Target for $9.59.
3. Cleaning Products
A 50-oz. bottle of Tide Original Laundry Detergent is $9.39 at CVS, but it’s only $6.89 at Wal-Mart and $6.89 at Target. Paper towels are generally marked up as well. Twelve rolls of Cottonelle toilet paper go for $6.49 at Walgreens, whereas they’re $6.29 at Target and $4.98 at Wal-Mart.
The small-toy section can be skipped as the markup is pretty high. Case in point: The price tag for a Power Rangers action figure is $10.99 at CVS, while Target carries it for $9.99. A Fisher-Price Rock-a-Stack toy sells for $6.99 at Walgreens, whereas you can snag it for $5.25 at Wal-Mart and $4.99 at Target. Besides the small selection, drugstores generally don’t carry popular toys that are trending.
5. Home goods
“Items for the home, like Tupperware, water glasses, and seating, are all bad buys at a drugstore,” says Glaser. “If you’re in a bind and have nowhere else to turn, perhaps you can take the chance, but you’re more likely to find a good deal on these items at stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Sears.” We poked around and found that CVS carries Rubbermaid containers for $5.49. You can find them at Target for $4.99.
“Any electronics sold at a drugstore are going to either be overpriced or extremely low quality,” points out Glaser. “Replacement cables and cords might be convenient, but if you can wait a few days for delivery, you’re more likely to find a better deal online for these items.” Case in point: A 50-foot spool of line cord goes for $7.99 at CVS, while you can find something similar at Wal-Mart for $6.22.
7. Staple foods
If you want to make a quick stop to pick up a few groceries, you’ll pay considerably more at most drugstores than at a big box chain. For instance, a family-size (21.6 oz.) box of Honey Nut Cheerios cereal is $5.49 at CVS. Target carries it for $3.99, and you can find it at Wal-Mart for $3.98. For coffee, a canister (35.3 oz.) of Coffee-Mate coffee creamer is $6.99 at Walgreens, whereas it’s only $5.49 at Target and $5.75 at Wal-Mart. A bag (8.6 oz.) of Gardetto’s Original Snack Mix is $2.99 at CVS, but $2.29 at Target.
On the other hand, drugstores do often offer steep discounts on certain food items. Keep a close eye on their weekly sales ads for deals and sign up for loyalty programs for extra savings opportunities.
If do you shop at a drugstore, here are some ways you can save:
Keep an eye out for sales. Rather than swinging by a drugstore out of convenience, scour the weekly mailers to see what’s on sale. Stock up on household goods and sundry items you can always use, such as toilet paper. That way you won’t have to run to the drugstore when you’re out and pay a premium.
Buy generic. Generic products are comparable in price to big box retailers. For instance, the CVS brand version of Gentle Skin Cleanser (8 oz.) is $6.99, which costs roughly the same as Target’s generic brand of facial cleanser at $7.29. Walgreens’ generic ibuprofen (200 mg, 100 pills) costs $7.49, whereas Target’s generic version (200 mg, 100 pills) costs $5.29.
Play the coupon game. While neither CVS nor Walgreens accepts competitor coupons, they both accept in-store coupons plus one manufacturer coupon per item. You can check their coupon policy for the details.
Beware of the “impulse queue.” “Be very careful about buying anything displayed right at the checkout,” warns Glaser. Because this is the prime area for the store to get you to make impulse purchases, it's probably something overpriced that you don't really need. The same goes for queues when you’re waiting in line to pay.
Take advantage of rebates, saving apps. When shopping at CVS, take full advantage of its ExtraBucks Rewards ExtraCare coupons alongside other coupons, or Balance Rewards when shopping at Walgreens. You can also sign up for these stores’ newsletters and follow them on social media, and deals are oftentimes advertised there, suggests Sara Skirboll of the deals site RetailMeNot.com, “It's where you'll find flash sales, secret sales, and specials on specific products,” says Skirboll.
Shop right after a holiday. You’ll find significant markdowns for cards, decorations, and holiday candy the days after a major holiday. Oftentimes you’ll find prices slashed 30%, or even 50%. If you don’t mind stowing away these items until next year, you’ll be able to net a good deal.
If you plan in advance, you can save on household staples on online marketplaces such as Amazon and Jet. And drugstores aren’t to be avoided entirely, of course. Just be wary of going in for a couple of things just because it’s convenient.
MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.