Take a look at any chain pharmacy in your neck of the woods, and odds are it'll be advertising special deals on flu shots. The trade publication Supermarket News recently rounded up a list of promotions showing that retailers are getting "creative" to encourage more customers to get flu shots. CVS promises shoppers that they'll get a free flu shot (with most insurance plans), as well as a "shopping pass" valid for 20% off non-sale merchandise on the day you're vaccinated. Safeway knocks a flat 10% off your grocery bill when you come in to get a flu shot. Target is waving a deal of 5% off your total purchase on the day you get a flu shot, which can range in (retail) price from $24.99 to $49.99. Get vaccinated at a Giant Food store and you'll be rewarded with a coupon book good for savings of more than $30.
What's more, just as retailers are constantly expanding the Christmas season with promotions and ads that start earlier and earlier every year, pharmacies are trying to beat the competition to the punch by pushing flu shots long before flu season is on the radar of consumers. Walgreens, which is utilizing a "Get a Shot. Give a Shot." marketing campaign to win over consumers' flu shot business—money raised helps poor children around the world get vaccinated—announced back on August 19 that all of its stores, health care clinics, and Duane Reade locations (which it also owns) were armed and ready to administer flu shots. Rite Aid actually beat Walgreens by a week, informing customers that flu shots were available at all of its stores starting on August 12, more than two weeks before Labor Day weekend.
There's certainly nothing wrong with stores encouraging Americans to protect their health by getting flu shots. The CDC recommends annual flu vaccinations for almost everyone ages 6 months and up.
Yet it still seems fair to question the motivation of the flu shot peddlars. You don't have to be a cynic to see that retailers promote flu vaccinations and other health-minded initiatives at least partly out of self-interest. When CVS stopped selling tobacco products, it was regarded first and foremost as a win for the health of all Americans, but it has also come to be seen as a savvy business move that's helped the drugstore chain stand out from competitors in the marketplace and boosted the company's stock price significantly.
With that in mind, it's worth noting that flu vaccinations are very profitable for drug makers and drugstores alike. Sales are increasing rapidly in the age of Obamacare and increased coverage too. Forbes reported in 2013 that the number of flu shots administered by CVS had more than doubled the previous year. For the first quarter of 2014, immunizations at Walgreens were up 34% compared to the previous year. In early September, Meijer Pharmacy announced that it expects to administer 30% more flu shots this season compared to a year ago.
An increase in flu shots means an increase in shoppers, who are especially likely to browse the aisles and buy stuff when they're given a coupon for discounted merchandise that day. So in a way, flu shots are not unlike loss leaders or Black Friday doorbuster deals: They're handy for helping retailers to draw loads of customers inside stores. Only with flu shots, pharmacies aren't losing money each time one is sold, which is often the case with deeply discounted "doorbusters." Drugstores must also like establishing the idea in the minds of consumers that a store that's good for vaccinations is also probably a solid go-to resource for nearly all of the customer's health needs, preventive care in particular.
Varying advice on when flu shots should be administered may raise some eyebrows as well. No one gets more than one flu shot (at least not on purpose), so there's a natural incentive for pharmacies to try to get their needles into the shoulders of shoppers before the competition does. But is getting a flu shot while it's still summer a good idea?
Rite Aid certainly thinks so. "Getting a flu shot as soon as it is available is the single best way to protect yourself and others against the flu," Robert I. Thompson, Rite Aid executive vice president of pharmacy, said in a press release.
"The best time to get a flu shot is not October, but actually before or soon after school starts," Meijer Drug Store Vice President Nat Love said in a statement. "Once classes begin, kids can literally bring viruses into your home every day, and it becomes difficult to keep influenza from spreading throughout the whole family. There is no expiration date to receiving a flu shot, so the sooner you get your flu shot, the better chance you have of staying healthy."
As for the CDC, its recommendations for timing are as follows: "Vaccination optimally should occur before onset of influenza activity in the community. Health care providers should offer vaccination soon after vaccine becomes available (by October, if possible). Vaccination should be offered as long as influenza viruses are circulating."
That would seem to settle that. Only it doesn't because not everyone is on the same page. Dr. Mark Dowell, an infectious disease doctor at Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases, recently told the Casper Journal (Wyoming) that because a flu shot's efficacy starts wearing off as early as four months after being injected (perhaps sooner if you're over 65), you could be asking for trouble by electing to being vaccinated before October 1. “If you get your flu shot too early,” Dr. Dowell said, “you may run out of protection before the peak flu season hits in Wyoming.”
It also seems worth pointing out that, at times, marketers seem guilty of stretching the truth in order to give customers the hard sell on flu vaccinations. "Following a second straight severe flu season in the U.S., and one which impacted younger adults in particular with increased hospitalizations, health officials are encouraging early vaccination to help protect against influenza this season," a Walgreens statement released in August explained. Indeed, the CDC verifies that the flu hit young people particularly badly in 2014. But overall, it was not a "severe flu season" like Walgreens suggests. In fact, despite the brutally cold winter, cough and flu medicine sales from giants like Procter & Gamble were weak, indicating fewer people were sick.
And, ostensibly, a big reason fewer people were sick is … because they'd gotten flu shots!
So go on and get your flu shot. But go in with your eyes wide open, understanding how the game is played.