Shop.org Coverage: How Walgreens turned a century-old business into a digital pioneer

It's not always easy for a brick and mortar business that's been around for over a century to embrace new trends, but that's exactly the challenge Walgreens CEO Greg Wasson has faced in moving the drug store chain forward into an omnichannel world.

"You don't stay around for 112 years if you're not relevant to people's lives and give them what they want, where they want it, when they want it," he said during Shop.org's Wednesday morning keynote.

Exactly how did they go about staying relevant? There's the loyalty program that's been widely praised, having grown to 85 million customers in just a year. But the efforts went much further than that: literally slowing physical expansion in order to direct more cash into innovation.

Since then, the company acquired the Duane Reade chain of drug stores in New York and drugstore.com, along with all the technical expertise they both carried, and partnered with Alliance Boots in the UK to build a global platform. But perhaps most eye-catching has been the company's dedication to growing digital services.

"We believe that healthcare in America will be transformed by e-health," Wasson said, launching into his company's initiatives to let customers refill their prescriptions by scanning the bottle, help people remember when to refill, even remind them when to take their medication, all via app.

The philosophy extends beyond medicine as well. Nearly a third of all photos printed at Walgreens are now uploaded from users' iPhones. The partnership with Alliance Boots has made certain items available online that never have been to Walgreens customers before, and Wasson was particularly excited about the potential for same-day delivery since around three quarters of Americans live within five miles of a Walgreens.

As it turns out, the shift toward digital hasn't been exclusively embraced by Walgreens' younger customers. The company's median customer on mobile, according to Wasson, is a 45 year old woman, while the media desktop customer is a 52 year old woman. Customers more than 100 years old have even refilled their prescriptions by scanning them.

And as more Americans get access to healthcare, Wasson only sees his company becoming more influential.

"We believe that access to healthcare will become even more important as more Americans gain coverage, combined with the continuing shortage of primary care physicians in this country," he said. "We think community pharmacy can fill the void by leveraging our position on the front line of healthcare in communities across the country. Helping people to take their medications properly is the best way to improve people's overall health and lower their cost of care."

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