Why New Yorkers Hate Duane Reade

Today, guest blogger Joan Warner fires off a rant.  Thank you, Joan!

Permit a New York native a moment of nostalgia.

Once upon a time, when people in this great city needed a bottle of aspirin or a jar of Vaseline (don’t ask why), they ran down to the neighborhood drugstore. In my case, this was a tiny Yorkville establishment owned by a smiling man in a white smock called Mr. D. To the kids on the block, Mr. D and his wife were like a second, more permissive set of parents, pretending not to see when you shoplifted a candy bar or “borrowed” a lipstick for a quick beauty experiment. If you got sick, your mother made two phone calls: the first

Urgent care, back in the day.

to the pediatrician, who came to your bedside with his black bag, and the next to Mr. D, who delivered your medicine in person—within minutes of getting the anxious maternal call.

It should be obvious from this reminiscence why New Yorkers despise Duane Reade as intensely as we do. For one thing, we’ve seen it metastasize from a relatively harmless warehouse in the financial district into an inescapable blight polluting nearly every block. My friend Bruce, also a Manhattan native, recalls that during the store’s most egregious expansion, he could look out from the entrance of the Duane Reade on Broadway and 57th Street and see not one but two more Duane Reades, mere steps from where he stood. That’s crazier than Starbucks in the 90’s.

This used to be every street corner in New York.

For another, the business model is based on the same creepy lie with which Barnes & Noble put scores of independent book sellers out of business: Bigger stores can offer a bigger selection (“Everything You Need! Duane Reade!”), and superior efficiency (so-called economies of scale) translates into lower prices. Consumers soon learned the truth. Chain stores carry only items from suppliers with whom they can negotiate advantageous terms. That’s why Duane Reade doesn’t stock your favorite organic skin cream, any more than Barnes & Noble stocks your favorite East Village poet.

Here are some other people who hate Duane Reade.

As for lower prices, fuhgeddaboudit. Yesterday afternoon I did a quick comparison-shop in Washington Heights. At homey little Farmacia La Fé on Broadway and 179th Street, an 8.2-oz. tube of Colgate costs only $3.99, and you get to listen to Merengue while you shop. The

You’re better off in here.

Duane Reade on 181st near St. Nicholas doesn’t carry 8.2-oz. toothpaste sizes. Instead, they sell 6.2 ounces of Crest for $4.19, and you have to listen to Muzak.

What about the pharmacy? I’m glad you asked. As a rule, I adore pharmacists. Most are far more knowledgeable than doctors, and unlike doctors they don’t take bribes from drug companies.   But in my experience, Duane Reade pharmacists tend to be aloof, and

Nothin’ a little cash can’t cure.

occasionally they’re actually hostile. This may be because of Duane Reade’s notoriously despicable labor practices. In the mid-2000s, the company was accused of firing employees who tried to join a union; keeping millions of dollars that were by law supposed to go toward employees’ retirement, health, and vacation benefits; and paying unfair wages. After an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, Duane Reade settled some of these charges, but press accounts (and the eyewitness evidence of anyone who has ever interacted with a Duane Reade cashier) suggest the store remained a miserable place to work.

Meanwhile, Duane Reade’s CEO and CFO were cooking the books. Both were indicted for securities fraud in 2008, and within a couple of years the stock had been hammered so badly that Walgreens was able to snap up the chain for a song. Employees were relieved. Many of the shabbiest and most redundant locations closed, and others got a makeover, complete with cosmetics consultants and, God help us, “fresh” food.

Walgreens made up a street corner.

Yet New Yorkers still harbor a deep, visceral loathing for the place. It’s not the big-box phenomenon that we find so offensive—we love Costco, and we boast about spending Sunday afternoon at Target. It’s Duane Reade’s inauthenticity that ticks us off, perhaps best summed up in  this promotional image, courtesy of Walgreens…   As every local knows, Duane and Reade don’t intersect. They’re parallel.

Google maps doesn’t lie.  There is no corner of Duane and Reade.

I realize that capitalism marches on, and nothing can bring back the days of Mr. D. But when a national chain invades Manhattan, it should at least try to learn the street grid.

Jane here again!  To help you combat the big, overpriced, and boring, here’s a short guide to some NYC pharmacies that AREN’T Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Duane Reade or…yep, I think that’s it.

Neighborhood Drugstores

There are lots more neighborhood pharmacies in the 5 boroughs.  Everyone has a favorite, so this is just to get you started.

Apthorp Pharmacy   Pricey and upscale – but they have some offbeat items you’ll never find anywhere else  – like Ponaris Nasal Emollient –  used on the space station!

Pharmacia La Fe   Joan’s favorite, and I agree.  The price is right!  Go there.  First,  watch the video.

Hilltop Pharmacy  No website, no online.  Just a great neighborhood pharmacy with quirky gifts, helpful pharmacy staff, and a variety of health and beauty products.  Plus, your dog is welcome inside.

City Drug  Three uptown locations.  A great neighborhood resource.

Kings Pharmacy Also has three locations.  They’ve got some surgical supplies, and the staff is helpful.

Not Duane Reade.

Village Apothecary  A standby in Greenwich Village for decades.

Cherry’s Pharmacy  Specializing in customizing prescriptions for children (pets too).  You want peanut butter or bubble gum flavor in that?

Block Drugs Possibly the oldest drugstore still in operation in New York City.  Opened in 1885 and still going strong.

Windsor Pharmacy  Expensive, and in a touristy part of town, but it’s fun to drop by and look around if you’re on 6th Ave & 58th,

Joan Warner, a professional business and finance writer, has lived in New York City since birth.  Read more from Joan on her blog






One comment

  1. D-UH….the original Duane Reade (and I do well remember it because I was working for the City of New York just a block away on Worth Street) was BETWEEN Duane and Reade Streets. Obviously some out of towner got her/his urban legend screwed up. I hate Duane Reade for all your reasons PLUS their rewards point programme really really SUCKS: only “special” items earn points and points can only be redeemed in units of $5 (5000 points). CVS on the other hand gives points just for smiling (slight exaggeration), plus quarterly bonus points, plus every Thursday evening there’s an email with the weekend’s discount (20% – 30%). The only thing keeping Duane Reade from insolvency (I think) is the fact that most of the City’s unions use it as their pharmacy of choice; meaning their regular prescription prices are usually higher than at other places.

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