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.