Drugstore price comparison: Online vs. in-store

I used to buy most of my drugstore items online. One reason was convenience — I typically have to go to two or three stores to find everything I use, especially since I favor earth- and people-friendly personal care items. But health food stores don't always carry other basics we use, so I wind up going to a few stores depending on what I need to buy. The other reason was rebates and airline miles. I liked the cash back deals and was working toward Is buying online a better deal than buying in the store?

It's difficult to compare the two. For one thing, there are people who are master coupon clippers. They can walk into a store on a special sales day with their binder full of quadruple coupons and What I really wanted to know is this: if I bought 20 or so of my regular drugstore items online, how would my bill compare with buying those same items in-store?

To answer my question, I made a list of items I regularly use, such as soap, laundry detergent, dish soap, sponges, sunblock lotion, toothpaste, floss, etc.

I looked up the price of each item on Drugstore.com and then went to Whole Foods and Walgreens to compare the online price with the in-store price. Here were the results:

Since I wanted the best price I could get for each item if I purchased it today, I used the sales price if an item was on sale. According to the prices I found, I'd save $8.39 by purchasing through the online drugstore (shipping is free on orders totaling more than $25).

Coupons, cash back offer even more savings
But the savings doesn't end there. A 10-second Google search for “drugstore.com” and “coupon” turned up a coupon code for $10 off an order of $80 or more, bringing my online order down to $104.83, a savings of $18.39.

Next are the rebates. Drugstore.com offers Drugstore.com Dollars, which is a rebate program that currently gives you 5% back on every eligible purchase you make during a calendar quarter. You have one month to spend your credit. For example, if I bought $300 in eligible products between July and September, I'd earn $15 off my first order in October.

Although I never remember to use coupons, I always used my Drugstore.com Dollars because I ordered regularly and they were automatically applied to my first eligible order. You also can opt-in on reminder e-mails that let you know when you have rebate dollars and when they'll expire. If we count these future savings, that's an additional $5.24 off the order total, bringing it to $99.59.

Keep the Rebates Coming

If you shop online, you really should have an eBates account. Founded in 1998, eBates offers cash back on online purchases from more than 1,200 participating retailers. Every quarter you're mailed a rebate check or the money is transferred to your PayPal account. It's free to sign up and free to use — eBates receives a commission from the stores when you make a purchase and shares it with you.

Right now eBates offers 6% back on purchases from drugstore.com. Since the total purchase was $104.83, I'd get a rebate of $6.29 next quarter, bringing my total order to $93.30. That's a savings of $30.02, or approximately 24%, over buying in-store. Of course that figure includes the rebates from the online retailer and eBates, savings that won't be realized until next quarter.

A professional coupon clipper could beat my savings, but like I said, I'm going with what would work for me. This method only requires me to search for a coupon code and login to eBates before making a purchase, two steps that take less than 5 minutes to complete. The rest is handled automatically.

Other Considerations

Of course price isn't the only aspect to consider, but I suspect I could make myself crazy if I throw in too many variables, such as:

  • What about the money I might save in gas, assuming I left the house only to buy drugstore products?
  • Is online really more convenient? Sure, it comes to your front door, but sometimes the wait time isn't convenient if you need something right away.
  • What about environmental effects of shipping? And is it more important to buy local or to now the same company.)

Because it's so difficult to quantify and compare the effects of my single purchase, I simply stuck to price for the purposes of this comparison, which showed that for these 18 products, buying online yielded the greatest savings, both immediately and after rebates.

Typically I only comparison shop when making a big-ticket purchase, such as a camera or a laptop, or when choosing an insurance policy or considering a different credit card. But saving $30 on one drugstore purchase is significant, especially because I'll be making a similar purchase in a couple of months or so. I think I'll be a regular Drugstore.com customer again, and I'm wondering, do any of you make drugstore purchases online, and do you save more money that way, or is it a matter of convenience? Besides drugstore items, are there products you've discovered are cheaper depending on whether you buy them online or in-store?

More about...Budgeting

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20's Finances
20's Finances
8 years ago

Thanks for the tip on eBates. That is a new one ot me. I will be looking into it! This question of which is cheaper is such a good one. It’s amazing how much cheaper it is online, especially in situations where you don’t have to pay tax. I wonder how this forces states to restructure state taxes (or if it is that big of an influence).

Pamela
Pamela
8 years ago
Reply to  20's Finances

You might want to take a close look at your state tax forms. In New York, our forms add on a amount of sales tax we owe to the state based on the average amount of online (not-taxed at sale) purchases a typical New Yorker makes. I go through my credit card receipts to put the actual amount we spend since we buy fewer things online (or anywhere) than the average. I’m surprised at how many people in my state don’t notice this. I suspect NY isn’t the only state that uses this method to recapture sales tax lost in… Read more »

John
John
8 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Actually the sales/use tax is not automatically added to one’s income tax in NY. There are instructions for estimating how much you owe, but you have the option (exercised by many) to claim that you did not make any non-taxed online purchases. Since the companies I buy online from now collect NY sales tax, I do not pay additional sales tax on my income tax return.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  20's Finances

I’d like to point out that eBates isn’t the only game in town when it comes to cash-back. Companies like FatWallet, Mr. Rebates and ShopAtHome offer money back on your shopping, too.
Cherry-pick them for the best deals.
Here’s a link to my MSN Money column that explains the concept and how to use it best:
http://money.msn.com/saving-money/how-to-play-the-cash-back-game-freedman.aspx

PigPennies
PigPennies
8 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

As far as I’ve found, you can’t use the Drugstore $10 off coupons and also use eBates or your credit card shopping portal. To get the Drugstore coupon discount, I’ve always had to go to drugstore.com through the e-mail I was sent, meaning I couldn’t also use eBates.

Maybe coupon codes are different, but I’ve always gotten the discounts in my e-mail.

John
John
8 years ago

To really save money you need to shop all the drugstores. My wife researched a drug she was taking and the price ranged from over $320 at CVS to $18 at CostCo. Yes, $18 vs $320 for the same prescription. Walmart and Target were in between. Every store has a different price so you really need to shop around. Call or look at their prices online. You can save a lot of money. We were shocked at the differences in prices.

Samantha
Samantha
8 years ago
Reply to  John

Not just different stores – different locations. Today I paid $29 for a prescription that I filled up the street last month for $21. Small potatoes, maybe, but I imagine the range can be bigger and the effect more pronounced if you buy a lot of prescriptions.

honeybee
honeybee
8 years ago
Reply to  Samantha

Wow! Really? This seems too wild to be true. There is so much shroud around prices. My CVS won’t even tell me how much my prescription would cost until it was all ready to pick up. It even fluctuated for the first few months.

Samantha
Samantha
8 years ago
Reply to  honeybee

Oh! That’s even worse! In my experience, I’ve been able to call in and ask what the cash price of prescriptions were, as long as I knew the name of it (I don’t know the policy for insurance-covered scripts but I guess you would know your copay already).

It was really my mistake, I guess, since I – crazily! – assumed all the CVS’s in the same town, on the same street, would have the same prices.

STRONGside
STRONGside
8 years ago

One of the reasons I do not shop online for drugstore products is that I often only purchase those items when I need them immediately. I’m terrible at planning ahead for toiletry items and other common drug store items. My wife is an avid couponer (although not “extreme”) and we save where we can by using coupons. For me, the convenience of going to the CVS at the end of our street, beats buying online and waiting for it to be shipped any day. Toilet paper, deoderant, and toothpaste are not things I wish to wait on, or go without.… Read more »

Tom
Tom
8 years ago

I don’t use drugstore.com (and actually, I thought it used to be owned by or associated with Rite-Aid? I could be wrong), but I hope for your sake the Walgreen’s purchase doesn’t ruin your shopping experience. I worked for a local drug store chain for years and we were gobbled up by Walgreens. They had a lot of nice things that a locally owned store couldn’t provide (better discount, better pay, nicer pharmacy computer system, profit sharing for full-timers), but they slashed technician hours (which actually didn’t affect me as I was currently very part-time searching for my first “real”… Read more »

Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
8 years ago

LOVE ebates! I don’t use many products I would find at a drugstore and that I use that often, so I don’t shop online. However, I think I would if I were to move somewhere that it was harder to shop for the “heavy stuff” (like when I lived in DC and had to carry everything back by Metro).

Mom of five
Mom of five
8 years ago

I do the bulk of our grocery shopping at BJ’s and Costco. As a result, our selection is fairly limited. Over the last two years or so, we have begun purchasing online products that I’d otherwise need to go elsewhere to acquire. I buy them in bulk and shipping is pretty much always free. I could do better if I couponed and comparison shopped for these items, but I’m not disciplined enough not to buy impulse items when I walk into other stores.

kim_n21
kim_n21
8 years ago

Hmm. On one hand, ordering online would appear to be less expensive and might possibly limit the number of impulse purchases (at least for me). On the other hand, I refuse to mail-order my prescriptions (I’ve had bad experiences and Walgreens will fill 90 day prescriptions so I get the savings that I would if I did the mail-order). Since I have to go to the physical store to pick up my meds, it seems to make more sense logistically to go ahead and pick up whatever else I need at the same time. I’m also single, so I’m not… Read more »

Leah
Leah
8 years ago

There’s just two of us, so I’ve never done toiletries online. We use a laughably small amount of shampoo and soap. When it was just me, a normal sized bottle of shampoo would last me two years+. Plus, most of our toiletries come from Trader Joe’s (love their TP), so we just make a TJs run when we’re in the nearest city that has one.

Petra
Petra
8 years ago

To feel less guilt about the environmental costs of shipping your bottle of shampoo and 12 rolls of toilet paper, you could consider buying in bulk. I imagine that if the truck has to visit your house only once a year with two boxes of stuff (more or less), than that’s definitely better than running to the drugstore once every two to four weeks with your car.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

So, no love for Costco? I’m not a huge pill-popper so I’m not up to date with the latest price fluctuations, but Costco’s prices beat Wallgreens by a good percentage if I recall correctly.

E. Murphy
E. Murphy
8 years ago

Interesting article, and I suppose if you use a wide variety of brand specific toiletries it works. But never in a million years would I shop at a Walgreen’s.

Toiletries come from Wal Mart for us, and detergents usually from Costco. I have a feeling your numbers would change quite a bit of you were able to get your products at those two stores.

Thanks for the tip on ebates.

Gretchen
Gretchen
8 years ago

I agree that online can limit the number of impulse purchases.

They also carry things other places don’t have, so I do use them on occasion.

For the “every day” things (toothpaste, soap), I use the supermarket (oddly low priced) or a discount store.

Kelsey
Kelsey
8 years ago

Great article. You may have convinced me to start using drugstore.com 🙂 And, I just signed up for ebates last night. Now I just have to remember to use it!

KM
KM
8 years ago

I love shopping online! Shopping at brick and mortar stores has become a huge hassle. Another car trip, often to just to find they’re out of the item I specifically went there for, plus there’s all those salesclerks trying upsell me, get my phone number, or offer me credit cards. I order Clinique skin care products online, usually available with free shipping. So nice to not have to make a special trip to the mall, find parking, and fight my way through all the advertising and teenagers milling about to get it! I’ll have to try drugstore.com for shampoo etc… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
8 years ago

Instead of messing with eBates, check out your credit card’s “shopping portal” or whatever they call it. My card, Chase Freedom, has the “Ultimate Rewards Mall” – basically a link through to the shopping website where I earn additional cash back. Drugstore.com is currently at 8%. As long as you start in the UR Mall and use the link to get to drugstore.com the purchases qualify and the cash back shows up on the next statement.

Danielle
Danielle
8 years ago
Reply to  Kevin M

Thanks for this tip! I have the Chase Freedom card and currently use ebates… now I’ll have to look into the ultimate rewards mall and compare when I’m shopping.

Clare
Clare
8 years ago
Reply to  Kevin M

Also try evreward.com, which is comparison shopping for rebates. It shows you the rewards for a particular website from a bunch of rebates sites (BigCrumbs, eBates, etc), credit cards, frequent flier programs

MAB
MAB
8 years ago

While I agree with the overall idea of this article, I do think there is an important social aspect that was missed. If we all stop shopping at Walmart, Walgreens etc. and start shopping online, what happens to the people who work in those stores?

NicoleZ
NicoleZ
8 years ago
Reply to  MAB

They can get jobs at the new warehouses that open up, customer service lines, data entry, etc.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  NicoleZ

Customer service lines in the Philippines and data entry in China, sure. Your local pharmacist likely outsourced to India. The only jobs worth anything in this scheme are in probably in UPS– which pays workers well, has a union, benefits, pension, etc.– I’d rather work for UPS than be a retail clerks. So that’s an upside of online commerce. If you worry about local jobs (I do), Costco is a decent employer, pays real wages + benefits to its retail employees, and it’s still priced cheaper than the competition. Plus, if you go there for groceries regularly, it’s not an… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

damn my spelling– JD, WE NEED EDITING BAAAAACK!

Bella
Bella
8 years ago

I feel like I have some really brand specific needs for certain things (Macy’s for hubby’s deodorant, Whole Foods for mine, salon for hubby’s shampoo, Whole foods for me, vitamin cottage for vitamins, now that my local grocery store dicontinued Tom’s toothpaste, Whole foods for toothpaste, but I literally buy any of these things like once a year. As I’m reading this article I’m realizing that my primary motivator for what I buy and where is convenience – not cost savings. But then again, I save a LOT of money by just not buying very many things. I guess maybe… Read more »

honeybee
honeybee
8 years ago
Reply to  Bella

I like the apricot scent.

amber
amber
8 years ago

Don’t forget about the convenience of online for submitting receipts to your FSA! Of course you can get the benefits of FSA from either purchase point, but I love that all of my FSA purchases are categorized neatly on Drugstore.com for future download whenever I am ready to submit them. When I buy from a regular drugstore, this is just a paper receipt with a + sign that fades away and is sometimes unreadable. I have had trouble being reimbursed for these paper receipts because they were not legible, never had trouble with a print-out from online. Never heard of… Read more »

Clare
Clare
8 years ago

I’ve started to buy some “drugstore items” through Amazon Subscribe & Save based on comparison shopping with my local grocery store. Some items can be much cheaper (15% off the Amazon price), and you can cancel anytime with no penalties. But you do have to plan ahead for the slower shipping – no 2-day Prime shipping for Subscribe shipments 🙁

I also have a monthly calendar reminder to check what’s scheduled to ship that month and adjust the shipping dates if I don’t need more of that item yet.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

“What about environmental effects of shipping?” The product is made in a factory somewhere and is brought to your house regardless of who sells it to you. The total distance shipped is identical both ways. Given that most of the things you’re buying are probably made in China, whether the last 10 miles of it’s 5,000 mile journey are made by UPS truck, your own car, or your bicycle is going to make very little overall difference in the impact from it’s trip. The UPS truck is almost certainly *more* effecient than your own car anyway, because he makes a… Read more »

Rosa+Rugosa
Rosa+Rugosa
8 years ago

Interestingly enough,very little that we buy in the health and beauty aid category is made in China. In fact, many of these items are made in the USA.

Michael
Michael
8 years ago

Like April, i typically only price shop big ticket items online, but there are a couple of repeat purchases i make that are big savings from online shops for my dogs – i have three Yorkies, a couple of them getting on in years, so there are some pet meds i buy online, and Greenies, which have kept all three of them (6-11 years) from ever having to get their teeth cleaned. I buy Greenies in the large tubs, which are $21 today at dog.com vs $33 from PetSmart. Even with shipping (since i usually buy at least 3 tubs… Read more »

Diane
Diane
8 years ago

With a nickname like “Whole Paycheck” for Whole Foods, i wonder about the results of this test. Online vs. Costco/Walmart/Target/The Dollar Store, depending what’s in your area would probably narrow the gap considerably.

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago

For others who don’t want to think about coupons warehouses offer some cost benefit.

I’d be interested to see an article comparing warehouse (costco/sam’s) to online or in-store using sales price but not coupons.

Kylie
Kylie
8 years ago

Slightly off-topic… I recently made one of my mom friends aware that Amazon Mom membership comes with free Amazon Prime benefits (free shipping) and that by subscribing to items like diapers (eg. a certain number of boxes periodically), the discount is 30%. The subscription service is also super-flexible. You can edit, delete, change the order without penalty.

akajb
akajb
8 years ago

I shop online maybe a few times a year. And most of the time I end up frustrated by the whole experience. Most recently, I had a few books I wanted to buy. I went to Chapters (like Barnes and Noble, but in Canada) to look them up. They had a buy 3 get the fourth free deal going on. To get the three books I wanted, even if i got one free for the lowest price of the three, I would have paid $70 + tax (2 x $20 + 1 x $30). Instead, I had a 25% off… Read more »

Arti K
Arti K
8 years ago

Fabulous piece! I come at the coupon-clipping thing from the same perspective as the author, so this article is a really good place for me to start. I had in fact been looking at ways to automate my CVS Pharmacy visits, but a quick comparison of Amazon’s Subscribe & Save, Drugstore.com and Walgreens didn’t give me any new insight. Now I’ll take a closer look, and it might be worth it with the ebates savings. Thanks!

Sara
Sara
8 years ago

I am normally a big fan of online shopping (I haven’t set foot in a mall in years!), but online drugstore shopping isn’t worth it to me. I am a coupon clipper, and almost everything I buy at drugstores is at a big discount. There are web sites where someone does all the work of matching sales with coupons, making it really easy to find the best bargains and freebies. I get way more free toothpaste than I could possibly use. I regularly get my favorite shampoo for $1/bottle. I stock up on toilet paper when it’s 40% off. Unfortunately,… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago

This is a great article – a lot of things I have never thought about or tried.

I noticed that it hasn’t garnered a ton of comments, I guess because it’s not controversial. I just wanted to speak up and let you know I got a lot of value out of this post!!

Tonya
Tonya
8 years ago

Thanks for the tips! I haven’t bought anything at Drugstore.com in years, and I had gotten to the point where I just assumed it was more expensive than going to the store. I recently got a coupon code to save $10 off a $20 purchase if I used PayPal, so I went in and got some things I use regularly–and saved $10 in the process. Thanks!

Natalie @ Mango
Natalie @ Mango
8 years ago

I like to think I am a pretty thrifty shopper, but it really hadn’t even occurred to me that I could be saving so much money by shopping online. I know it seems a little counterintuitive, but I honestly find it to be less of a hassle to make the trip to the store and just pick things up in person. I guess it’s the lack of waiting, wondering if it will get lost in the mail, or if my dog will chew it up when it arrives on my doorstep. Thanks, though, for the comparison! I might re-think this… Read more »

Dan
Dan
8 years ago

Good post! I’ve been using a combination of Alice and Soap.com for groceries and household for about a year. I’ve never tracked the savings, which I thought were probably marginal at best, but I loved the convenience of ordering from home.

I hadn’t heard of eBates, but after reading this I signed up for an account and put April as my referral. Thanks!

Ahmed Fenrich
Ahmed Fenrich
7 years ago

I really like reading an article that can make people think. Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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