Consumer World Investigation
[Pressed for time? Read a summary of this story here.]
Like many drugstore chains, Walgreens has a loyalty program and they call it Balance Rewards. You earn points on most everything you buy, and points collected can be used like cash toward future purchases.
In April 2015, the company recognized some of the less appealing aspects of the program and notified members via email and on their website that starting May 31, 2015 they would have more ways to earn points:
Great news — one can now earn points on prescriptions. (That asterisk only referred to limitations in a handful of states.) And sure enough, by early June 2015, Walgreens updated the main Balance Rewards webpage to indicate that “all” prescriptions – both 30 and 90-day ones — would earn points.
MrConsumer, like probably millions of others, orders 90-day prescriptions for maintenance drugs via Walgreens’ mail order service at Walgreens.com and was expecting to finally earn points on these purchases. It’s not a lot of money — you earn about a dollar for every three such prescriptions ordered or reordered.
Fast forward to February 2016. MrConsumer wondered how many points he had accumulated on prescriptions over the past nine months or so, so he checked his balance. A surprising ZERO was earned. He then wrote to customer service asking what happened and got this response:
Regretfully, you do only earn points for prescriptions if you fill your medications locally, rather than via Mail Order. Also, I have included a link to the Balance Rewards Terms and Conditions so that you may locate this information, if you would like to look.
That link to their February 2016 terms and conditions said nothing about online prescriptions being excluded from earning points. In fact, it said the opposite:
With the exception of photo orders (which require “store pickup” in order to earn Points), items ordered online and delivered to your home will earn Points as they would if purchased in store.
Now fast forward again to last week. Their website as of January 24, 2017 continued to advertise that you get 100/300 points for filling prescriptions both in-store and online, and that all prescriptions earn points:
– – –
Note: footnote references shown above only relate to an exclusion in three states.
And this 2017 national television commercial also proclaims that all prescriptions earn points:
So, we asked Walgreens’ PR folks last Monday (January 23) why points were not provided as represented in advertisements and in multiples places on their website, and wanted to know what they were going to do to resolve the issue. In a statement, Walgreens replied:
“As stated on our website in the Frequently Asked Questions, only prescriptions picked up in-store are eligible to earn Balance Rewards points at this time. We are always appreciative of customer and member feedback, and take it into consideration as we continually review program materials. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.” – Emily Hartwig-Mekstan, Walgreens Media Relations Manager
Rather than admitting that the company unintentionally or carelessly goofed and that they would immediately fix the misleading representations, (or perish the thought, go back and make consumers whole), they suggested all was fine because one FAQ revealed the true facts. Incidentally, the main page for program details about Balance Rewards has no such FAQ except as it relates to drugs for pets and children. Only in the general help section for Walgreens.com under Balance Rewards, nowhere near where the points earning claims are made, is there a question among three dozen others that discloses that only prescriptions picked up in-store can earn rewards.
And remember that fine print terms and conditions statement (shown above) that says the only product category that requires in-store pickup to earn points is photos? Well, that was the wording until the day after our inquiry! Believe it or not, the very next day (1/24/2017) Walgreens inconspicuously amended their terms and conditions to now exclude prescriptions from earning points unless picked up in the store:
What a coincidence in timing.
And to try to cover themselves on the main Balance Rewards page, a couple of days after our inquiry, they inconspicuously added a few words and a footnote to limit points earnings on prescriptions to in-store purchases only. These changes were made in the very places we had pointed out to them. We’ve highlighted their changes in red boxes below. [Compare to original.]
*MOUSE PRINT: (Use scrollbar below on the right to view.)
There is no word if they plan to change their television commercial.
In fiscal 2016, Walgreens filled 740 million prescriptions in its retail division, which includes mail order. It is unclear what percentage of those prescriptions were in-store versus mail order, but clearly, millions of consumers never got the likely millions of dollars of rewards that Walgreens promised.