Reading Between the Aisles in Chicago

By Deborah Cassell

All Walgreens stores are not created equal, and that’s a good thing for at least one in a North Chicago suburb, whose product selection is as eye-catching as the location’s architectural exterior.
The Walgreens on Green Bay Road in Wilmette, Ill., looks nothing like the retailer’s newer, shinier storefronts. With more than 6,000 locations in 49 states (plus Puerto Rico), Walgreens is a household name. And in competition with another growth brand (CVS), it’s undergone a face-lift.
But there’s something to be said for older stores such as the one in the upscale Chicago suburb of Wilmette — just across the street from the Metra train — with its English Tudor-style architecture and smaller footprint. Less brightly lit and perhaps less spacious than younger sister stores, this particular North Shore stop is actually a treasure trove of products, as I learned on a recent shopping excursion.
Upon entering the front door, I right away noticed some traditional front-of-store merchandising: a four-sided display featuring three varieties of Planters trail mixes and dry roasted peanuts, and a similarly shaped, smaller display of “Giant Chocolate Candy,” i.e. movie theater-style boxes.
Seeing no other prominently placed confections or snacks, I instinctively searched for the candy aisle or, in this case, side B of Aisle 5: “Candy Bars, Gum-Mints, Candy,” which shared space with side A: “Pens-Pencils, School Supplies, Stationery.” At first glance, it was nothing to write home about. But upon closer inspection, I discovered much more than mainstream chocolate bars and bags. Cookies by Lil’ Dutch Maid mingled with colorfully packaged Hebert’s bars in Dark Turtle Chocolate and Rocky Milk Chocolate varieties as well as Lucky Country Aussie Style Licorice in Black (my dad would have swooned) and Apple.
But that was only the start.
In addition to overhead signage, Walgreens had clearly labeled individual sections of the aisle with blue signs. They included the following:
Theater Candy: Movie buffs would be wise to shop here before catching a Netflix. The variety of big box confections on display was enough to turn any living room into a home theater experience. Products ranged from the usual suspects — Nestle Raisinets, Dots, Milk Duds, Junior Mints (plus an offshoot: Junior Caramels) and Sugar Babies — to golden oldies — Charleston Chews, Good & Plenty, Boston Baked Beans, Swedish Fish and Jujubes —  to less common treats — Goetze’s Bulls-Eyes and Tootsie Crows. The majority cost $1.29 for 3.1-6.5 oz. Note: The theater candy section was located across from a rack of kid and adult sunglasses ... none of them 3-D.
Nutrition Bars: I found it somewhat strange that nutrition bars were adjacent to theater candy, but perhaps they were there to act as salve for one’s guilty conscience after window-shopping for all that sugar ... or as proof of the increasingly blurred lines between confections and snacks. The bars selection included Clif, Luna (my bar of choice) and Zone, among other popular leaders.
Also odd: Alongside the Nutrition Bars were some high-end chocolate bars (without their own signage) such as Toblerone, Ghiradelli and Russell Stover, in addition to the highly advertised (on TV) Ferrero Rondnoir (“New item! $1.29”).
Gums, Mints & Novelty: The gum selection at Walgreens did not disappoint. Choices ranged from Trident to Orbit (now in new Maui Melon Mint) to my current pick for daily chewing (and not just cuz I love those commercials touting the long-lasting flavor), Stride. I also saw Wrigley’s new 5 gum in two varieties: Rain and Flare.
It was then that a married couple approached and began scanning the rows. I asked if they preferred a particular brand.
“We went through a Trident phase,” the woman said. After someone recommended Orbit, they switched, she added, picking up a pack of the latter. Meanwhile, her husband was dropping some kids’ novelty products into their basket. Among the most interesting of those on display were Toxic Waste Hazardous Sour Candy and Baskin Robbins Marshmallow Ice Cream Cones.
Bag Candy: The best bargains in this section had to be Walgreens’ private label line. Options ranged from Orange Slices (one of my brother’s guilty pleasures) to Cherry Sours (which I used to buy in bulk at the Pamida candy counter as a kid in Muscatine, Iowa). Each blue bag cost 99 cents.
Top Shelf
I discovered that the Wilmette store’s top shelves were reserved for more unique and sometimes higher-priced products, so I made a point of craning my neck as I moved down Aisle 5. These included Pez Collectibles in a Disney theme for $14.99 and a Whitman’s sampler of assorted chocolates, 12 oz. for $8.99. Other offerings that gave me pause (and not just because they were on sale): canisters of liquor-based confections such as Flavored Filled Chocolates in Kahlua Coffee and Malibu Rum varieties. Each was labeled “Last Chance; Save $4.50; Now $1.49. Talk about a deal. Yet another traffic stopper: Royal Dansk Delicious Apple Cinnamon Cookies (Buy More & Save: 2 for $5 or $2.99 each).
Stick ‘Em Up
Speaking of sticker shock (the good kind), I noticed many different tags in Walgreens indicating just how a good a deal shoppers were getting. For example, “Buy More & Save” signs encouraged you to buy two products instead of one. And bright orange “Last Chance” stickers loomed like road construction warnings on Chicago’s busy Edens Expressway. A “W Value!” sign hung above an endcap featuring Pringles and Fisher Party Mix and Cheese Curls, as well as Snapple beverages. Opposite that endcap was another one with the same signage touting Pringles Baked Wheat Stix and Gatorade (to wash down said snacks).
It being just two days after Easter, I could not help but walk through the Seasonal aisle of Walgreens, where big yellow Clearance signs jumped out at me, promising 50% off selected items. I walked past hoards of chocolate bunnies, colored baskets and jelly beans before turning the corner.
There, I found half an aisle dedicated to snacks, including granola bars, cookies and crackers. In another aisle, opposite a wall of refrigerated drinks, were more snacks — this time nuts, trail mixes and dried fruits from Planters, Blue Diamond, Deerfield Farms and Walgreens’ own private label brand, which also offers beef jerky, in addition to popcorn and chips.
To the Checkout
I had no intentions of purchasing any products while at Walgreens. After all, I’m no candy junkie, as mentioned in this month’s Editor’s Note. But who was I kidding? You can only stare at rows and rows of chocolate, chips and nuts for so long before caving in to the sweet and salty goodness.
Halfway through my shopping trip, I went to the front of the store for a basket. By the time I was done, it was filled to the top with everything from Snickers and 3 Musketeers to lesser-known treats such as Parati’s United Treats brand sugar wafers (a product of Brazil), as well as Walgreen’s private label Steakhouse beef jerky (peppered — yum). I even found a 26-count box of my beloved Cella’s (again, see Editor’s Note), which I purchased in addition to a Turin brand canister of Premium White, Milk and Dark Chocolate Covered Whole Cherries (another Last Chance bargain at 99 cents for 4.2 oz., previously $3.99).
I approached the checkout while doing some mental math as to how much damage I’d done. But I was distracted by another display of family-style Twizzlers and Salerno brand cookies. I quickly averted my eyes and met the gaze of a cashier, who asked, with a grin, if I worked for Walgreens corporate. (He’d apparently witnessed me taking notes.) I said no, and mum was the word as he rang up my $27.49 worth of confections and snacks, in exchange for which I received two coupons for 75 cents off the purchase of any two Reese’s Whipps bars.
As I approached my car, I glanced back at the slanted rooftop of the Wilmette Walgreens, a reminder that new isn’t always improved. And before judging a store by its aisles, you should take a closer look.