Monday, November 19, 2007

CVS: The Hidden Hell of Washington

The average Washington CVS looks like the refugee camp from The Day After. First off, there’s that grayish flickery fluorescent lighting. Talking is muted, and even groups of teenagers fall into an uneasy hush. Every aisle is a mess, and nothing is where it should be. The floors are covered in peculiar stains and last year’s candy. There’s a “seasonal” aisle with depressingly generic decorations and the gifts only your least favorite maiden aunt would ever purchase. The patrons shuffle forward, with dead eyes and hopeless expressions. The employees take out their anger and frustration with prison guard flourish. I don’t think I’d ever seen someone count pennies with petulance before. Going to CVS is a deadening experience.

From there, we have the things I hate about each individual CVS. The Dupont Circle CVS expects you to fight your way through aggressive panhandlers. The FEMA CVS has an invisible register behind the Cheetos (which is usually also the only open register). The Eastern Market CVS has the longest lines, the Connecticut Avenue CVS has the strangest smells, and the Penn Quarter CVS looks like it was laid out by a bitterly divorced dyslexic with ADD and mother issues.

But the main thing that depresses me is the locked-up merchandise. For a drugstore, which by definition sells little of value, they are fanatical in their crusade against shoplifting. The discomfort of buying home pregnancy tests, lubricants or enemas is compounded by having to beg assistance from a surly 17-year-old in a smock. Many CVS’s keep condoms under lock and key (considering DC’s STD and teen pregnancy rates, this always struck me as unforgivably stupid.)

But when I saw shampoo being kept in locked cabinets, I just about lost my mind. It’s shampoo, and it’s locked up like the crown jewels. There’s just something incredibly mean-spirited about that. And I’ve never seen anyone request that a cabinet be opened, so I assume CVS would rather sell no toiletries at all than lose a bottle or two to sticky-fingered teenagers. It's the retail strategy of "I'll take my toys and go home!"

Saturday, it took almost twenty minutes to buy a bottle of Gatorade. There were French-speaking line jumpers, one open register, teenagers taking up heartfelt collections from friends to purchase candy bars and maxi pads, and one very bleary-eyed me trying to not smack any of them. It occurred to me that I don’t really need to go to CVS. I don’t take any prescriptions. I can buy candy from the grocery store and my toiletries from Bed Bath and Beyond. I go to CVS because it’s convenient, but the shoddy service and long lines make it more convenient to just do without. I would have saved 19 minutes on Saturday by purchasing Gatorade from a street vendor. So I think I’ll minimize my trips from now on.

PS – No, I am not in the habit of purchasing enemas, home pregnancy kits or lubricants. At least not all at once. But the last time I was in CVS I took a look around to see what was locked up.


lizzie said...

you know, the condoms being locked up in DC CVSes (ok, so i made up a word) is just ridiculous. honestly, peeps, there's an HIV epidemic going on in this city. i've seen all sorts of personal items locked up at CVS but never shampoo. seems kinda like the last straw.

however, shoplifting is really bad in the city and i'm sure CVSes get hit pretty hard because it's so easy. i once saw someone stealing at a cvs i rarely go to (and probably won't ever now after this incident) and i went to tell the cashier (as he was the only employee that i saw). he shrugged his shoulders as we both watched the thief walk out of the store.

yup, it's that easy.

Michael J. West said...

Well...I like the new CVS at U Street...but then I haven't tried to buy condoms there.

Brian said...

There are actually pretty good reasons for what would seem to be worthless dreck to be locked up. There has been an interesting crime taking place in the last several years: Coordinated groups of shoplifters (mostly kids) come into a store and, using some sophisticated distraction and teamwork, literally steal every single piece of a particular high-markup merchandise. Razor blade cartridges were a VERY common target. Then, they take them and sell them on the street at a price much lower than retail; and people buy, because really, who doesn't hate paying $30 for a six-pack of piece-of-crap blades?

The stores responded by locking up many such items, and installing one-at-a-time dispensers for others. But it's still a big problem. Their old theft prevention systems are designed to thwart the one-off shoplifter; they don't work well when faced with these sophisticated teams.

So, anyway, if something ridiculous is locked up, it's probably because the item has a pretty steep mark-up, and really was getting stolen a lot.

Kristen S. said...

Lizzie...hhhmmm. I was going to say I was in a CVS and a woman reported a guy walking out the door with his bag stuffed full of merchandise, and the employees just shrugged their shoulders. Somewhere perhaps in the SW part of town?

Shannon said...

"Coordinated groups of shoplifters (mostly kids) come into a store and, using some sophisticated distraction and teamwork, literally steal every single piece of a particular high-markup merchandise."

Wow, I never knew this. That's actually sort of ingenious. If only DC's schools didn't suck so hard, so these obviously bright and enterprising kids could go to business college.

I wonder how much CVS loses in sales by making it a hassle to buy things, vs. how much they'd lose because of shoplifting.

I do think it's egregious to lock up condoms. Hello, DC has an amazingly high HIV rate! CVS, show a little shred of civic responsibility here. Don't lock up the stuff that can save lives.

Kelly Mahoney said...

I can see the whole wanting to lock up things that get stolen. But I'm OK with teenagers stealing condoms if they're going to use them.

nutmeg96 said...

You should just come out to the NoVa CVS's. You walk in the door and the light shines down on you from above. It is drugstore nirvana. It's night and day from the one I used to frequent on Virginia near the State Department.

Anonymous said...

I was at the Courthouse CVS the other day and overheard a clerk and customer talking. They had apparently both just witnessed someone shoplifting but there was nothing they could really do about it.

The clerk says it happens all the time. He said he once saw what looked like a father-son team, with the father waiting in a car to make the get-away

Bad at Life said...

Great post. I have a deep and abiding hatred of CVS--mostly because of their employees. Sometimes I suspect that CVS must have some sort of bonus system that rewards employees for working as slowly and rudely as possible.

The whole business of locking things up is also just ridiculous. I refuse to believe that shoplifting is any more of a problem for CVS than other grocery or drug stores, yet somehow these other stores survive without placing half their merchandise on criminal lockdown.

Susan Katz Keating said...

When I first moved to D.C. from a small farm town in California, I lived near the Logan Circle CVS. I was more unnerved by the employees than by the menacing souls who formed a human gauntlet outside the doors. Now, I avoid CVS altogether and instead revel in the wonders of NoVa's Target emporia. No lockups, no surly clerks, no fear of imminent bodily harm.

maryjanejeff said...

Yup, another one who found your blog because of the Paper for Metro Riders with attention deficit syndrome, I mean Express. :) I guess I've lucked out with CVS stores here. The one on H and 4th? is okay, they always have the Odwalla bars that I'm looking for. The one near Federal Center SW is fairly neat, the one near Nationals Park (I forget the cross streets) not so much, no Odwalla bars. The temporary one in SW, yeah I think that's the one someone shrugged their shoulders at. So that one does suck.

In NO VA, if you dare cross one of the 5 bridges that handle 86715 bridges worth of traffic, we have Rite Aid too!

Shannon said...

MJJ, I think the Express really ought to add me to the payroll at this point!

The FEMA CVS is nasty, but, weirdly, I've had very good luck at the Trailer CVS in Waterfront.

maryjanejeff said...

Which one is the FEMA CVS? I don't think I've been there.

maryjanejeff said...

Posting this for no other reason other than the infamous Gallery Place CVS is now closed until 2011. The race is on! First phase of Dulles Rail (build the MF thing already) or Gallery Place CVS! Which will be done first?