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Which Drugstore Is Cheaper: CVS, Walgreens or Rite Aid?

A look at where shoppers can save on all their drugstore buys


spinner image drugstore shoppers holding their purchases in three separate photos from left to right are george pitre jane wilkinson and anthony serra
Drugstore shoppers from left to right: George Pitre, 65; Jane Wilkinson, 69; and Anthony Serra, 77
Lanna Apisukh

Drugstores are a vital resource for many older adults, and it’s not just to fill prescriptions. You can load your cart with many necessities, including vitamins, toiletries and food, all under one roof. For most Americans, there's a CVS, Walgreens or Rite Aid store nearby and often more than one to choose from. (The chains operate about 20,000 drugstores combined in the U.S.) 

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But buyer beware. Prices vary from one chain to the next. Consumers need to comparison shop, but who has the time? Thankfully, we do. We shopped the aisles of CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid to see which drugstore has the cheapest prices. We compared the prices for a basket of 20 brand-name items, excluding sales or discounts. The winner: CVS. Walgreens came in a close second, leaving Rite Aid as the costliest of the three, albeit by a small margin. ​​

What’s in our cart at the drugstore?

spinner image three shopping baskets containing typical drugstore purchases with the following drugstore chain names and comparison shopping receipt total labels c v s is cheapest at two hundred sixty one and eigthy cents then walgreens at two hundred sixty five and eleven cents and rite aid at two hundred seventy two and eighty cents
Getty/AARP

“These are all big pharmacies, but some are better at negotiating with the brands,” says Trae Bodge, a shopping expert at TrueTrae.com, as to why CVS is cheaper. “CVS is my pharmacy of choice. The prices are better and it has one of the better loyalty programs.” 

Beyond comparison shopping, an effective way to save whether you shop at CVS, Walgreens or Rite Aid is to sign up for their loyalty/rewards programs. You accumulate points that can be used to get money off in addition to customized coupons.

“No matter what pharmacy you are shopping at, if they have a loyalty program make sure to join it. It's definitely to your advantage to do so,” Bodge says. If you aren’t tech-savvy or don’t want to download an app, Bodge says to check the circulars and don’t toss your receipt after checking out. “CVS is known for its long receipts. Those receipts have really valuable coupons. If you are an in-store shopper, make sure to opt for the printed receipt,” she says. 

The winner: CVS 

Locations: Nationwide 

Number of stores: 9,674

Shopping cart total: $261.80 ​

CVS wasn't always among the biggest drugstore chains in the nation. It got that way via several acquisitions since its inception in 1963. Today it operates more than 9,000 pharmacy locations, including ones in Target stores and Schnucks grocery stores. About 85 percent of Americans live within 5 miles of a CVS Pharmacy. ​

​That access and convenience is one of the reasons shoppers flock to the drugstore chain, but it’s not the only one. Jane Wilkinson, a 69-year-old retiree, goes to CVS sometimes when she's in a rush but often because the prices are cheaper. Wilkinson uses the CVS rewards app and checks the flyers before making purchases to save money.  

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Shopping tip: Know your prices. When Wilkinson is out shopping, she takes a mental note of the prices for products she often buys. That enables her to comparison shop without wasting time and money on gas. “When I’m going for different items, I glance at some of the things I generally get,” she says. 

For Anthony Serra, a 77-year-old retiree, it’s the savings he sees on prescription medicine and ancillary products that have made him a loyal CVS shopper. Prior to switching, Serra got his medicine from a mail-order service.  “After doing business with them for almost 40 years I reached a point where I had it. They gave me the wrong prescriptions. They didn't charge me right,” Serra says. “Now I do all my business with CVS. I get a lower price, better service, and if there’s anything wrong I can talk to someone with a pulse.” In addition to his medications, Serra picks up candy and other products at CVS and finds them to be cheaper. ​

Shopping tip: Value, convenience, ease of access and the ability to get help are important when choosing a drugstore, especially if you fill prescriptions often. “The mail-order service may be cheaper monetarily, but aggravation-wise you can’t put a price on that. Running around trying to straighten things out costs you money when it's completely unnecessary,” Serra says. 

Second place: Walgreens

Locations: Nationwide 

Number of stores: 8,886

Shopping cart total: $265.11 

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Similar in size to CVS, Walgreens operates just under 9,000 drugstores nationwide, including in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It fills about 287 million prescriptions per month and has a store within 5 miles of about 78 percent of U.S. consumers. One of the oldest drugstore chains, it was founded in Chicago in 1901.

In addition to selling medicine, toiletries, food and other convenience items, it has a robust photo-finishing business that is a draw for many older adults including George Pitre, a 65-year-old retiree. He uses Walgreens’ app to print out photos and finds they tend to be cheaper. As for everything else, Pitre says he’ll pick up items when they are on sale. ​

Shopping tip: Loyalty doesn’t pay, Pitre says. Outside of photos, whichever drugstore has the best price for the item he’s coveting is where he’ll shop. “I know what I want and I just get it,” he says. (AARP members are eligible for additional savings at Walgreens.)

Close third place: Rite Aid 

Locations: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Washington ​

Number of stores: 2,309 ​

Shopping cart total: $272.80  ​

The smallest of the three big drugstore chains, Rite Aid has been operating for 61 years. Today it has about 2,300 stores concentrated on the east and west coasts. While it's not always the cheapest, it has its loyal shoppers like 54-year-old Denise Mancuso, who shops at Rite Aid for specific items. “I usually come for things more geared toward my 17-year-old daughter, like cosmetics and things of that nature,” Mancuso says. As for her medications, she gets them filled at CVS. “I go to different places for different things.” ​

Shopping tip: To save money, Mancuso tries to buy things from drugstores when they are on sale. She’s also a member of the stores’ loyalty programs, which enables her to earn points she can use for money off her bill. “It really comes down to planning. Plan what you need. Don’t go in blindly. You’ll find a bunch of different things you never expected you needed,” she says.  

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