AGAINST FORGETTING: Pity the poor CVS workers and the customers and patients who toil there.

By Ruth Rosen
Thursday February 21, 2013 - 06:00:00 AM

Have you noticed that when you go to a CVS store, you find fewer and fewer things you’d written down on your list, that the shelves are emptier, that you can’t get common antibiotics at the pharmacy, and that getting refills, even though you’ve been reassured by phone they're waiting for you, often requires you to return in 20 minutes because of a glitch somewhere in their system? 

It’s time to get serious about CVS and to decide how we should handle this corporate incompetency and lack of sensitivity to different neighborhoods. 

Today, I looked for fertilizers for flowers because global warming has Berkeley’s flowers in bloom several weeks early. The kind worker told me he’s not allowed to order it; CVS just decides when to send it to their store. Instead, they currently have a bunch of ugly kitsch garden sculptures that he would like to throw out and hope they would get stolen. I couldn’t agree more. 

Then I looked for Advil capsules, and once again, the shelf was empty. Then I went to the pharmacy and they had forgotten to refill the one drug I really need to use. Then, I asked the quite lovely pharmacist if they could put in an order for a different drug that I need every 4 weeks, so I wouldn’t have to discover, every month, that they’re out of stock, and have to search every CVS, Walgreens’ and Pharmacaa in the East Bay. This week, for example, they said it would be ready Tuesday, but then I received a call saying it would be ready 3:30 on Wednesday. 

Well, it may surprise them but I’m busy working and can’t visit CVS every day. 

So I decided to go the top and speak with the general manager of the store, who was very decent and received my complaints with a kind of sad resignation that helped me understand the problem. He has no control over what arrives in the store or in the pharmacy. CVS sends the same things to all stores, at their convenience, keeps the inventory low, and serves Berkeley exactly just as it serves CVS stores in areas with different climates and different communities in different parts of the East Bay. So we have no fertilizer because Chicago doesn’t need it yet. 

Why, I asked, don’t they focus on serving each unique community, as Walmart does? Of course, Walmart is hardly the poster child for corporate responsibility, or treating their workers well, but it is a great example of strategic marketing and it does keep the inventory flowing with astonishing efficiency. 

The general manager shook his head, acknowledged my complaints were real and said he would do everything he could, but that the “system” (aka CVA headquarters) won’t let him to do too much. Which, by the way, is just what the lovely pharmacist said. She would love to help me, but the system is set up so that she can’t order a drug for me, unless I use automatic refill, which I once did and regretted it immediately when it didn’t work. 

So what should we do about CVS? I have purposefully not used the names of the people I interviewed because they have to operate within this corporate system and they have very little freedom to act with creativity or initiative. In each case, I identified myself as a journalist and told them I was going to write about the system in which they work. 

They are not the problem. Each one agreed that CVS had deteriorated since it bought Long’s, which is the CVS I’m writing about, the one on the corner of Shattuck and Rose in Berkeley. Perhaps other CVS stores are managed, but that is not what the store manager led me to believe. 

This little bit of reporting is just meant to expose the reality I encounter at CVS. Now it’s up to us to figure out what to do and how to do it in a way that doesn’t harm their workers, but rather gives the corporation the message that we want every community to be served with a plentiful inventory that addresses the unique needs and products usually used by each community, depending on their customer base, their location and their region, and that we don’t blame the workers who labor under these ridiculous inventory restrictions. 

Any Ideas? Sure, we can take our business elsewhere. Sure, we can order our refills by mail. Sure, we can find individual solution, the good old American way. But I’m asking us to consider what kind of collective and communal ways we can force CVS to meet the practical needs of its customers.