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Sushi, Smoothies, Manicures: Walgreens Goes Upscale

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Walk into a typical Walgreens, and see cosmetics, greeting cards, and candy and snack aisles. Not so at a new, huge version of the drugstore in the heart of Chicago's Loop.

At a new downtown Walgreens, customers can get a fruit smoothie while they wait for their prescription — or even a manicure. Walgreens opened the new upscale version of its drugstore Tuesday on State Street to try to distinguish itself from the competition.

"You walk in, and the first thing you see is our sushi chefs preparing sushi throughout the day," says Rob Ewing, district manager for Walgreens in Chicago. "This is not your grandmother's Walgreens."

Behind the sushi bar is a fresh bakery, a coffee bar, a juice bar, a self-serve frozen yogurt station and fresh produce. There's a huge wine and liquor section, and even a humidor with cigars and other tobacco products.

On the upper level, there's the "look boutique," with higher-end cosmetics and a nail salon offering manicures.

And there are, of course, pharmacists, as well as a clinic with a nurse practitioner who can diagnose and treat everything from ankle sprains to ear infections. In between is a person called a "health guide," who can point customers in the right direction.

"We have everything that a traditional drugstore would have and more in this 27,000-square-foot [location]: newspapers, Redbox ... peanuts," Ewing said. "We have everything here, just a bigger selection."

He said this new Chicago flagship store with a European market feel is meant to be a destination for downtown office workers, tourists and the growing population in downtown high rises. And some elements of this new look will appear in neighborhood Walgreens stores in the city, suburbs and across the country.

"One of the challenges has been [that] our customers tell us that they couldn't tell the difference between a Walgreens and a CVS or a Rite Aid or something," Ewing said. "And I think now we're kind of separating ourselves from the rest of the group."

A Calculated Risk

Mara Devitt of McMillan Doolittle Retail Consultants in Chicago says the chain is gambling a bit with this new flagship store, but she says it should boost its brand in the crowded marketplace.

"Anything [of] this size in any location in today's economy is a risk, but I think this is a pretty calculated risk," she said.

The concept is borrowed from New York's Duane Reade store on Wall Street. Walgreens acquired Duane Reade in 2010.

On the first day of business Tuesday, many Walgreens customers liked what they saw.

"Very impressive. I really like the lighting and the layout. It's very nice," said Tracy Anzelone, who works as an office manager a couple of blocks away. She said she had to come try the frozen yogurt. Her verdict: "very tasty."

Not For Everyone

Retiree Dan Fischman said he remembers that the old Walgreens store that opened in 1926 at this site had a cafeteria and a soda fountain — as did many drugstores. He longed for those days as he sampled a little something from the sushi bar.

"This is a vegetarian something, which I don't like. I'm going to throw it away," he said, chuckling.

Fischman said that at 80 years old, he'd rather see a soda fountain than a sushi bar. But he concedes that for the younger generation, in 2012, a sushi bar in a Walgreens is probably just fine.

And if the sushi doesn't set right, there's always Pepto-Bismol right upstairs.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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