In what appeared to be an unsuccessful “proof of concept” project in 2015 between Walgreens and Sonova, a similar venture, this time involving Starkey, is underway inside two Walgreen’s locations in the Twin Cities. Similar to CVS, which has been opening hearing aid center locations throughout the US for more than a year, Walgreen’s appears to be dipping its toe back into the retail hearing aid waters.
Within the past few weeks, Walgreen’s, the second-largest pharmacy store chain in the United States behind CVS Health, has opened two locations in the Twin Cities metro area, one in St. Paul and another in Golden Valley, Minnesota. The opening of the two Walgreen’s Hearing Centers, presumably dispensing only Starkey products, may represent a change in business strategy for the Eden Prairie-based manufacturer.
A few years ago, in April 2014, then senior vice-president and current president, Brandon Sawalich, issued a strongly worded letter to customers indicating Starkey will not sell its products through “Big Box” stores like Costco.
“It is our belief that we sell better hearing, not hearing aids, and we know that supporting hearing aid distribution through big box retail is a path toward the further commoditization of hearing aids. This commoditization is not the right direction for our industry, and most importantly, is not beneficial for the patients we serve.” –Comments from April 2014 letter to Starkey customers
Walgreen’s Hearing Aid Clinics
A visit to the Walgreen’s location in Golden Valley revealed that the recently opened hearing aid center, equipped with a sound-proof booth and full testing suite, is staffed by two professionals, a licensed hearing aid dispenser and a “hearing care advisor.” In addition to the two retail locations, Walgreen’s also sells one type of PSAP on their website, based on a recent online search.
The Walgreen’s Hearing Centers service all brands of hearing aids, but apparently only dispense new products from Starkey.
A Chicago-based corporation, Walgreen’s operates more than 8000 stores in the United States. In 2014, Walgreen’s purchased 55% of Switzerland-based Alliance Boots, which operates Boots UK. The pharmacy chain, Boots, has been dispensing hearing aids in the UK for several years.
The aggressive growth strategy of CVS – they are trying to fill dozen of open positions around the country with licensed professionals — and Walgreen’s re-entry into retail could represent the further erosion of the independent hearing healthcare channel. Since 2004 independent hearing aid centers have lost more than 10% of the total number of hearing aids sold in the private market. Although industry experts expect manufacturer-owned and big-box retail hearing aid distribution to grow, led by Costco’s 11% share of the private market, independently owned retail still comprises about a third of the private hearing aid market.
Starkey Clarifies Walgreens Relationship: UPDATE
Following HHTM’s request for comment last week, Starkey Hearing Technologies responded with a press release stating that the two Walgreens Hearing stores are part of a “pilot program” that will be expanding in the coming weeks. According to Starkey, the new locations “will create opportunities for independent hearing health professionals to partner with Starkey to serve patients at Walgreens stores in their communities”.
The new locations are said to offer customers comprehensive professional hearing examinations, using “state-of-the-art” diagnostic equipment.
“For over 50 years, Starkey Hearing Technologies has supported the independent hearing professional, because we know the immeasurable value that personalized local service and care provides to patients. We believe that better hearing should be made available to as many people as possible, and it is our goal with this program to deliver convenient and superior hearing healthcare through our customers and these Walgreens retail locations.”
— Brandon Sawalich, President, Starkey Hearing Technologies
In addition to the Golden Valley and St. Paul locations, Walgreens Hearing will open in three additional states by mid-April and will be announced as openings occur.
“As the population of older Americans grows, so does the demand for hearing care, an area where we believe our stores can provide access to quality advice and solutions from a trusted source in the community,” Nimesh Jhaveri, vice president, healthcare services, Walgreens.
In the statement, Starkey says that it will continue to “focus on developing new distribution opportunities that provide greater access to hearing healthcare to all”.
Source: Starkey, Walgreens