Feb 25, 2010

How to Play The Drugstore Game at CVS

The Drugstore Game is really just the combination of sale prices, store rewards programs, and coupons. Your success in The Drugstore Game will depend on how well you are able to combine these elements to minimize your expenses.

Here’s what you need to know to play The Drugstore Game at CVS:

ExtraCare Rewards Program
CVS has a store loyalty program called the ExtraCare Rewards Program. You will need to sign up for the ExtraCare program in order to fully play The Drugstore Game at CVS. You can join online, but I recommend signing up in the store so you get your card immediately. You’ll need to have your card scanned for each transaction in order to receive your rewards (the cashiers are pretty good about asking for your card at the start of each transaction).

ExtraCare Rewards are issued in the form of "Extra Bucks," also known as "ExtraCare Bucks," or "ECBs." I use the "ECB" abbreviation here at CFO, as do most other blogs and forums. ECBs are a store-issued coupon that can be applied toward your purchase. For example, if you have a $5 ECB and you are buying $5 worth of items, you can use the ECB to pay for your purchases.

There are several ways to earn ECBs. The primary way is by purchasing qualifying items, which vary by week or month. For example, a common weekly deal is on toothpaste – it might be on sale for $2.99, and giving $2 ECBs. The store expects you to pay $2.99 + tax, and then you will receive a $2 ECB at the end of your receipt, which you can use to pay for your next purchase.

Another way to earn ECBs is by getting your prescriptions filled at CVS. You’ll earn $1 ECB for every two prescriptions you have filled there. You’ll receive your prescription ECBs on a quarterly basis – they’ll either appear at the end of your receipt of your first transaction after disbursement, or you can print them from the red scanners that most stores have near the front of the store. (More on the scanners below.)

You’ll also earn automatic ECBs each quarter, to the tune of 2% of your total purchases in store and at CVS.com. However, if you play The Drugstore Game correctly, your total purchases will be minimal, and your corresponding quarterly ECB will also be minimal. Like the prescription ECBs, your quarterly ECBs will appear at the end of your receipt of your first transaction after disbursement, or you can print them from the scanners.

Store Coupons
The beauty of store coupons is that they can be "stacked" with manufacturer coupons, so you can use two coupons on one item. CVS is pretty generous with store coupons, at least with some customers. (Not that I feel unloved by CVS or anything . . .)

About those scanners . . . they are red boxes and usually positioned near the front of the store. You can use them to price check items, but the scanner only tells you the price of an item and not whether an item is producing ECBs. (The only way to tell that seems be by completing a purchase.) You can also scan your ExtraCare card at the scanners to obtain coupons, including any pending ECBs you might be due. Some people routinely get great coupons from the scanners, like $3 off a $15 purchase coupon. Others (like me) only get two coupons per day, usually for $1 off specified CVS products. I Heart CVS has a weekly post listing the coupons that are printing from the scanner. It’s a good idea to get in the habit of scanning your card when you walk into the store.

If your store doesn’t have a scanner, it’s out of service, or your forget to scan your card, you may get coupons at the end of your receipt when you check out. These are known in the coupon world as "CRTs," for "cash register tape" coupons.

CVS also sends out printable store coupons via email, so be sure to give them your address when you sign up for your ExtraCare card. Again, some people get more of these than others.

Using Coupons At CVS
CVS does not have an official coupon policy that I am aware of. However, I have never had any problems stacking a CVS coupon with a manufacturer coupon on the same item.

Unlike Walgreens, in most circumstances you need not worry about the item-to-coupon ratio. Thus, you should not need "filler" items to use your ECBs on top of your manufacturer coupons. I have occasionally run into an unclear coupon limit at CVS, when the register simply refuses to accept any more coupons and the cashier insists that she cannot override the register. This has happened only when I’m using a lot of coupons on the same product, so I think it has more to do with quantity than anything else. (For example, most recently, I bought 10 canisters of Clorox wipes, and the register would not accept the last $1/2 coupon.)

Also unlike Walgreens, you can "roll" your ECB into the same deal, until you reach the deal limit. Some items, particularly free items, have a limit of one. So, for example, if Colgate toothpaste is on sale for $2.99 and giving a $2.99 ECB with a limit of one, you cannot use the $2.99 ECB to buy another Colgate and receive another ECB. But you could do it if the limit was two.

Keep in mind that your ECBs are coded for use with your card, so you cannot use someone else’s ECBs and they can’t use yours. Emailed coupons and store-generated coupons are also programmed for use with your card only.

Multiple Transactions
Unless you have many ECBs or an $X off $Y purchase coupon, you will probably minimize your out of pocket expenses by doing multiple transactions. Multiple transactions can feel strange at first, so you’ll have to figure out what you’re comfortable with.

Personally, I try to limit myself to two transactions per store per trip. I feel that it is not excessive enough to warrant any extra attention from the employees, and I am not getting in other customers’ way. I am also not buying enough to wipe out the shelves. And, I rarely have enough coupons to repeat the same transaction more than twice.

If the stars align, I may do more than two transactions. For me, this usually requires extra coupons, a friendly cashier, and an uncrowded and well-stocked store.

If you can, get to know your store’s employees. If they are friendly toward you and your coupons, it will make your transactions that much smoother. It may also make it easier to do multiple transactions in one visit.

Putting It All Together
Playing The Drugstore Game at CVS involves putting all of the elements I just discussed together. Take a sale price on an item that’s giving ECBs, use a coupon or two to make the price even lower, use an ECB to absorb most of the cost, pay a minimal amount out of pocket, and get another ECB back for next time.

I plan to put together "starter transactions" each week to help you get started, so stay tuned!

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