Does Walgreens have the right response to defuse growing calls to boycott the chain?

Sources: Twitter/@Mel16934007 @AlanMayUSA @drice470
Jul 21, 2022

Walgreens has a public perception issue to deal with after recent encounters with store staff led customers to go public with the ill treatment they received in the chain’s stores. News of those incidents have led, in turn, to growing calls for consumers to boycott the business.

The controversy is tied to reports that Walgreens customers were denied their orders of birth control products by staff whose actions are tied to their religious convictions.

Abigail Martin posted a video on TikTok earlier this month in which she recounted her experience with a Walgreens pharmacy technician who refused to fill her prescription for an oral contraceptive despite having four refills left. Ms. Martin has over 886,000 followers on TikTok.

Said Ms. Martin in the video: “When I told her what I was there for, my birth control, she looks me up and down and goes, ‘Okay, excuse me.’ She then says, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to refill that prescription. You need to call your provider’ and I said, You won’t refill it or you can’t refill it. And she goes, ‘you just need to call your provider.’”

Ms. Martin called her provider who reconfirmed the prescription with Walgreens.

She later called the pharmacy and spoke to a woman who said her prescription would be filled before confirming the denial of service for female contraceptives had become a problem at the store in recent weeks.

“So first, they want us to stop getting pregnant and having abortions,” Ms. Martin said, “and then they don’t want to help us prevent that pregnancy.”

Ms. Martin’s video has received millions of views and inspired the #BoycottWalgreens hashtag, which is now trending on social media channels, The Hill reports.

Jessica Pentz, another Walgreens customer, also made the news recently when an associate refused to ring up a box of condoms that she sought to purchase while vacationing with her husband in Wisconsin.

The associate called a manager over to complete the transaction while “walking away with a smirk” over the exchange.

Walgreens has responded to criticism of these events by stating that its “company policy allows team members to step away from completing a transaction to which they have a moral objection and refer the transaction to a fellow team member or manager who will complete the customer’s request.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does Walgreens need to come up with another response other than citing its company policy in instances where associate’s acts of conscience result in unhappy customers? Should Walgreens actively address calls for a boycott of its business or wait it out?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Yes they do need a new response - if they feel that their employees have the right to not serve customers they have a responsibility to their shareholders to make this clear."
"First lesson to learn as an associate – 'The customer is always right.'"
"Women are furious these days, and Walgreens hasn’t figured that out yet."

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29 Comments on "Does Walgreens have the right response to defuse growing calls to boycott the chain?"

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Neil Saunders

Walgreens needs to get a grip on this, and fast. It is fine for employees to have their own views and for those to be respected by politely handing over a transaction, but those views cannot be forced on customers and shoved down their throats. No customer should be abused or harangued or even questioned for buying perfectly legal products that the store stocks. Any member of staff doing that should be dismissed immediately and Walgreens should make that very, very clear to all involved.

Gene Detroyer

I am sure Walgreens’ response will be acceptable to most customers. But from a business POV, I see it as weak. It may even encourage more associates to decline to serve customers occasionally.

Employees are hired to do a job, not let their beliefs and biases, personal, religious, or political, be imposed on the customer. Imposed is the operative word! If an employee finds this objectionable, they ought to work somewhere else. I believe both incidents are unacceptable. But the pharmacy incidence is most egregious. Simply, a pharmacist is there to fill the doctor’s orders.

Scott Norris

Much like the documented nation-wide push by extremist right-wing militant groups to get hired into police forces, I wonder if there has been a coordinated effort to train and place ideologically-motivated folks into pharmacy positions. It would be no surprise, as this has been happening in education; the local “bible colleges” around the Twin Cities have been a pipeline of teaching staff for a generation now – so which schools have been training RX staff and how have they been instructing those students about matters of patient privacy?

Gene Detroyer

Scott, it is a sad commentary. But General Pharmacy Council makes the responsibilities clear.

“What does a pharmacist do?
Pharmacists are responsible for:

  • the quality of medicines supplied to patients
  • ensuring that the supply of medicines is within the law
  • ensuring that the medicines prescribed to patients are suitable
  • advising patients about medicines, including how to take them, what reactions may occur and answering patients’ questions.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Yes they do need a new response – if they feel that their employees have the right to not serve customers they have a responsibility to their shareholders to make this clear. They deserve to be boycotted and they should be changing their policy. I’ll be boycotting them until they make a change.

Paula Rosenblum
There is something very, very wrong at Walgreens. I have written about this before. The employees can be rude, slow, and don’t follow protocols one would expect in a pharmacy (like wearing masks at the prescription counter). I have filed two formal complaints with the company as an outcome of my Twitter shaming of them. The behavior of associates in their stores is unacceptable, period. And the stores also cut their inventory of prescriptions too low. I had influenza about a month ago. My doctor called in a scrip for Tamiflu, I waited in the drive-thru line for an HOUR before it was my turn, and I was glibly told “We don’t have that medicine now.” It used to be they’d check around to other stores. Now they just don’t care. And every hour is critical once the flu begins. They cost me two weeks of upright life because I ended up having to get a new script sent to CVS. I’m not going to boycott their business. I AM going to move my prescriptions… Read more »
Jenn McMillen

Sounds like Walgreens is going to have to decide what’s more important: latitude for their employees to make decisions on a 1:1 basis or the masses who shop them. Since public companies are judged on topline revenue, this boycott could force Walgreens’ hand. They can’t have it both ways.

DeAnn Campbell

This is a massive problem for the retailer who loses the trust of a customer – probably for life, not to mention the customer who is denied legal access to products advertised as available. Normally I would say the employee should find work elsewhere if their personal beliefs don’t align with the company they have agreed to work for. But finding labor is tough for retailers right now, making compromise more important than ever. Walgreens should offer an online/delivery option for uncomfortable employees to offer customers, rather than imposing a personal judgement by denying a customer services promoted by the retailer.

Gene Detroyer

DeAnn, I must disagree. “But finding labor is tough for retailers right now, making compromise more important than ever.” That one employee that pulls stunts like these will hurt the company more than any lack of labor.

Jenn McMillen

Right there with you, Gene. If it’s a labor issue, put the culprits in the back or out front stocking shelves, but not customer-facing positions like register or pharmacy.

Bob Amster

I believe that all employees of Walgreens are employees at will. Having personal beliefs is guaranteed by our constitution. Bringing one’s own biases to the workplace should be cause for dismissal. Bottom line: Walgreens needs to revise its policy to “You are entitled to your own views — just not while you are at work. You don’t HAVE to work here.”

Gary Sankary

Walgreens has a big mess on its hands and one, in my opinion, of its own making. Allowing their pharmacy techs to make health decisions for customers is a huge problem. Regardless of the tech or, for that matter, the pharmacist’s personal beliefs on birth control, those drugs are prescribed for several reasons besides contraception. Reasons that I don’t believe are any of the tech’s business.
I don’t think Walgreens is going to be alone in this situation. Pharmacies need to either mandate that their employees serve the needs of all their customers, or they need to make it a policy that the chain will not carry these products and let customers vote with their feet before they come to the counter and are embarrassed by a store team member. To allow every individual to make those decisions arbitrarily is just inviting problems.

I really don’t understand how it is OK to impose your personal religious beliefs on your customers. But here we are.

Jeff Weidauer

These incidents will quickly gain traction and drag Walgreens into the weeds unless the company takes a proactive position in addressing them and changing its stance. Waiting for this to pass is like the Titanic waiting for that iceberg to go by – the real damage is being done where it’s not obvious.

Bob Phibbs


Enough said.

#clueless #outoftouch #thelongerthisgoesonthemoreitwillgrow #themarketiswatching

Cathy Hotka

Women are furious these days, and Walgreens hasn’t figured that out yet. If a Walgreens associate can refuse to ring up a product that the company sells, something is seriously wrong. They need to hire a crisis PR firm to get on this, STAT.

Dave Wendland

Inspiring trust among consumers is critical for any brand. Walgreens is undoubtedly facing incredible headwinds as the growing threat of a boycott mounts. The company must get out ahead of this situation and tactfully, consistently, and empathetically communicate to customers AND associates. Expectations and practices must be understood by all.

Evan Snively
  1. I don’t understand the employee’s logic of “passing someone off” to a manager. Their actions don’t stop a transaction, it seems like the intention is to cast judgment – which is ludicrous to enable with a store policy.
  2. If you don’t want to literally DO THE JOB then you should find alternate employment. Again it does roll back up to Walgreens’ enablement.
Lisa Goller

Walgreens’ tepid response to customers’ needs (items it sells, a non-judgmental experience) shows it isn’t rushing into damage control mode.

Values-based division is now more overt. Walgreens’ conscience-laden associates will funnel some traffic to its rivals. These headline-grabbing incidents will also deepen loyalty to Walgreens among consumers who hold similar values.

Dick Seesel

Absurd that we are still discussing the Walgreens situation on RetailWire a week after the first time without an adequate response from the company. Time for some PR damage control and — more importantly — time for Walgreens to revisit its hiring and HR practices as urgently as possible.

Harley Feldman

First lesson to learn as an associate – “The customer is always right.” Also, business and politics should never be mixed. Walgreens needs to fix this problem quickly even if it means letting go of employees. This story will spread like wildfire to other Walgreens customers. Walgreens should not wait it out.

Ryan Mathews

I’m still waiting for their first “response.” What they’ve done so far is, in my opinion, just pouring gasoline on a forest fire created by their own really questionable policies. What’s the defense against a boycott, that Walgreens associates reserve the right to not fill legally ordered prescriptions or sell OTC products that may offend a clerk? That really isn’t much of a defense. I say change the policy to say that all associates are obligated to sell all products and announce that – while Walgreens respects their associates’ rights to free expression as individuals, customers are the chain’s highest priority. This is a real mess and it is only likely to get worse.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Strategic communication is significantly more than the usual PR. It is one of the most ignored strategic pillars in business and includes integrated internal, external, executive, and crisis communication plans and programs. The messages (internal and external) should be coherent, clear, and straightforward.

Walgreens’ leadership team appears lost and inept in handling the situation, let alone having the foresight to anticipate the likely scenarios for their business and industry. It’s more than getting a response right; it’s about having a coherent communication strategy that anticipates and is executable. Walgreens should be in profound damage control and quickly invest in building strategic communication capabilities.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

If Walgreens prioritizes employees’ personal “moral objections” higher than providing their customers with legal/prescribed products then boycotts and other negative promotions will destroy trust and market share.

Mel Kleiman
Mel Kleiman
President, Humetrics
4 months 14 days ago

Nineteen out of twenty negative comments says it all. Walgreens has a significant problem, and the only way it will solve the problem is by letting the world know that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

4 months 14 days ago

Crisis Management Rule #1 – Get the CEO out in front, not the “social media manager.” Remember Tylenol adulteration? Immediate action by CEO, and you can still buy Tylenol. Remember Exxon Valdez? Same kind of delay and subordinates response as Walgreens … and Exxon is still despised for the spill.

Besides, it’s untenable. Walgreens sells groceries. Can an observant Jew or Muslim refuse to sell bacon? Or meat and milk to the same customer? This policy is everything customers hate about retail and why increasingly they are turning to Pharma-by-mail and Amazon for everything else. The pandemic proved brick and mortar outlets are optional — why is Walgreens making it toxic?

Craig Sundstrom

However one feels about the situation, no company should have their policies dictated by TikTok.

James Tenser

A pharmacy tech’s self-righteous refusal to fill a patient’s legally authorized prescription is not a problem that can be successfully papered over with “crisis PR.” This is a matter of corporate policy. Failure to state and enforce ethical pharmacy practices is, in my opinion, a fiduciary violation by top management.

The #boycottwalgreens backlash raises some other troubling questions for me. Why did multiple reports about problems with birth control purchases at the chain’s stores surface on the heels of the overturn of Roe v Wade? Is this part of a pervasive pattern at Walgreens or just a few egregious incidents?