Tuesday, May 17, 2022

“A Walgreens shopper in El Paso helped me feel connected to the world”

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Shreya Christinahttps://cafe-madrid.com
Shreya has been with cafe-madrid.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider cafe-madrid.com team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

It all started in April 2021 with a kid’s cherry cough syrup, baby humidifier, and a 32-ounce box of Aunt Jemima’s pancake and waffle mix. That was the first receipt that landed in my inbox from Walgreens store #3924 in El Paso, Texas. Total: $67.89 on a Visa debit card with 63 cents earned in Walgreens rewards.

The thing is, the receipt wasn’t mine; I live 2000 miles away in New York. Whoever signed up for the Walgreens loyalty program in El Paso had jotted down my email address, preparing my Gmail for a crazy collision course with the American drugstore trade. And since that fateful day, every time they buy something at Walgreens, I get an auto-generated receipt telling me all about it.

Under more normal circumstances, this would be an everyday annoyance, a very specific and justified itch that can only be allayed by pressing unsubscribe and never leaving any feedback. But during the pre-vax, isolated days of the pandemic, when social circles shrank and political spheres drifted even further apart, these insights into life beyond the two square miles around me were oddly invigorating. Over the next few months, I would take an undeserved look at a consumer life that fascinated me and made me feel connected to a strange, many, many brightly lit aisles beyond. In ways that are both unexpected and improbable, these digital scraps would teach me how people cope in a time of unparalleled physical and social separation.

Fortunately for everyone, what would ultimately prevent this bit of digital voyeurism from falling further into eerie horror was the reality that the Walgreens receipts offered no identifying data about the shopper. Other than the location of the store, the items purchased and the payment method, there would be no (legal) way to find out who this shopper actually was.

And, as it turns out, it’s pretty hard to pin down a Walgreens customer after all. According to the analytics firm Numerator, about two-thirds (!) of American shoppers betuttet the drugstore chain. The typical shopper is a white suburban boomer who earns $80,000 a year, comes in about once every three weeks, and spends about $22 per trip. However, my mystery shopper lived in a medium-sized city and came back the next afternoon with another email.

This time, the store log contained covers of 16-ounce clear plastic cups (70 for $7), 90 paper plates for $4, a six-pack refill of Dollar Shave Club disposable razors, and a bar of something called Duke Cannon Big American Bourbon. Soap, which claims to be made with Buffalo Trace bourbon. The sniffing baby is apparently still a concern, a RaZbaby brand RaZberry Silicone Baby Teether Toy and some Zarbee’s Naturals Baby Gum Massage Gel were also purchased. Total: $47.54 on a Visa debit card, 44 cents earned from Walgreens cash rewards. A mental image of my shopper began to sharpen.

The best and most surreal thing about drugstore shopping is that anything goes. Whatever socialized self-consciousness there may be about buying toilet paper in public disintegrates as a one-tier discount. Judge someone else’s bunion pads or banana flavored peanuts is (generally) reserved. Buying Reese’s Minis at a 35 percent markup to get another half price is the kind of bad deal you make when you’re in a drugstore chain. All shelves have something: they are so irreducibly filled with memories of our obligations, flaws, and mortality, that they prompt us to shop with our IDs.

And so, when my mystery shopper strolled to the Walgreens counter at 2:57 p.m. on Thursday to drop $69.73 on a 24-ounce tallboy from Modelo, two more bars of Duke Cannon soap (this time infused with Old Milwaukee- beer), two bottles of Stella Rose blackberry flavored wine, a pack of Camel Menthols and a full pound of Oscar Mayer bologna in two 8 ounce packs, I knew we had entered a new dimension. A higher truth about life.

It was late April, 12 days after that first email. More than half of US adults had received their first Covid-19 shots, and cases had fallen dramatically in more than half of the states. In my New York household, dinner invitations and travel plans were sketched out nervously but optimistically.

I’ll never know what the El Paso shopper’s last spree was, but it sure seemed festive. More than that, it felt normal. Of course, I wondered if never buying a pound of bologna for $4 at Walgreens put me in or out of the American mainstream, but this latest receipt was proof that ordinary life still went on. I didn’t even have to catch a whiff of the weird Mother’s Day scented candles in the store or hear the Vanessa Carlton sing lightly overhead to feel that it was finally starting to get better.

This intoxicating combination of booze and bologna also spoke of American resilience for historical reasons. One hundred years earlier, in the wake of another pandemic, Walgreens had undertaken a massive domestic expansion during Prohibition through the sale of alcohol – usually whiskey – which was medically prescribed for a range of often dubious ailments. This (legal) move turned Walgreens from a regional store with several dozen outposts in the mid-1920s to a national chain of hundreds in 30 states by 1934.

By this time, Oscar Mayer had been a fixture at the deli for decades, as it eschewed the unsanitary practices of other meat sellers who had been infamously described in dirty tomes as The jungle† If Walgreens and Oscar Mayer could get through tough years by being vigilant, maybe we could too.

It was almost May. Outside my email tabs, a dizzying energy began to perpetuate. Hot vax summer was surely approaching and threatened to unleash a tidal wave of suppressed horniness and cheerfulness. Sixty-four percent of the country expressed his optimism over the coming year. More than half a million new jobs at the end of the month would be logged by the Labor Inspectorate.

Yet even the specter of normality has its limitations. After their late April outburst, I didn’t hear from my obsessive soap opera for more than three weeks—roughly the statistical cadence for a regular Walgreens shopper. By the third week of May, they had moved to a newer store (#9173) about three miles west, next to a Jack in the Box and across the street from a competing CVS.

They also made less glamorous purchases—items without glee or ailment. A gallon of whole milk, two 20-ounce Red Bulls, and another pack of camels. With just eight cents earned from Walgreens cash rewards, they wouldn’t be scoring a free pack of Hi-Chew anytime soon.

When I zoomed out, it seemed reasonable to ask if there would be a price for the return of regular routines. Would we shake off our new habits and reject any perspective we had acquired? Would we lose a dangerous status quo by simply falling back into a dysfunctional one? If at the right time, after that modest Walgreens run on the third Saturday in May, the El Paso shopper went completely dark.

An overarching irony of the pandemic is that, as consumers, many of us drift as much toward health as toward comfort. One study from The Consumer Research Magazine summed this up as a rift between Big Macs and kale salads, both of which have become hugely popular over the past two years. The dramatic loss of control with the pandemic means we seek out the familiar, while also warding off death and disease with healthier practices. These impulses might as well explain why, as the delta variant descended, millions ended up resigning from jobs that they didn’t enjoy, that didn’t protect them enough, or that just seemed a little silly in the context of everything else.

I admit I was concerned about them when I didn’t hear from the El Paso shopper during the sizzle of our collective summer of redemption. It was heartening to see that El Paso…, even as the news faded from everywhere else, had arranged to avoid the worst of the delta wave. Like a Big Mac or a BOGO bag of goldfish, the silver liners were a temporary respite from the free-floating dread.

Finally, in October, the El Paso shopper (accidentally) dropped me a line. After shopping exclusively in northwestern El Paso, they moved to a Walgreens outpost on the east side of town. On a Monday about 10 p.m., they dropped by for a pack of Peanut M&Ms, two boxes of Raisinets, a box of Milk Duds, a Snickers bar, a theater-sized box of Reese’s Pieces, and four bags of Welch’s Berries ‘n Cherry fruit snacks. This time they paid the $7.50 cash.

The following Tuesday night, they returned for two packs of Peanut M&Ms, an Almond Joy, and more Raisinets and Milk Duds. From a distance, I imagined that an irresistible coupon had been the culprit for returning them. Still, I was happy to learn that our Walgreens membership saved us 51 cents.

In another significant development, I noticed that Walgreens had also redesigned the format of its emails since the ones I received in the spring. The receipts were now warmer and less spartan, dotted with colored icons that looked a bit like emojis: a shopping bag, a blue megaphone announcing Member Savings, and a banner above a barcode to emphasize the ease of returns. The footer of the email now also contains a link to unsubscribe from digital receipts. I would never click on it.

Adam Chandler is a journalist and author living in New York.

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