Welcome to flu season: retailers get ready with promotions

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Flu season is here, and the sneezing, coughing and runny noses are already well underway. Following one of the worst flu seasons on record, many drugstores and retail chains are hoping to persuade consumers to get vaccinated, and as early as possible.

During the 2017-2018 season, the number of reported deaths was at or above the epidemic threshold for 16 consecutive weeks—the longest duration in five years—and overall hospitalization rates were higher than the previous record set three years earlier, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency reported that the number of pediatric deaths was especially high; a record 183 children died from the flu last season.

To avoid another severe outbreak, drugstores like Walgreens and CVS have already started to push flu-shot-related marketing. This month, Walgreens, which acquired nearly 2,000 Rite Aid stores earlier this year, began running advertising takeovers inside urban transit hubs in New York and Chicago. "Protect yourself and everyone else who walks this corridor," and "Share a commute, not the flu," ads urge consumers. The chain is investing more in the effort than it did last year, according to Adam Holyk, the company's senior VP and chief marketing officer.

"There's a heightened awareness based off the activity of last year," says Holyk. "We've been far more active thinking about local activations," he adds. The chain ran a survey earlier this year to understand how to best educate consumers; 82 percent of respondents said getting the flu impacts them and means they miss out on things.

Walgreens is also running TV spots and radio ads through the fall with similar messaging that promotes getting a flu shot as one's duty and responsibility. Walgreens worked with Grey New York on the push.

Similarly, CVS is highlighting the availability of vaccines at its CVS Pharmacy and MinuteClinic by offering discount coupons at its stores and at clinics inside Target, where it also operates pharmacies. In select states, the chain is running paid media, including radio, social and display ads, in-store signage, and emails as well as dedicated placement on the CVS homepage, a spokeswoman says.

Even the CDC is making its own push to educate consumers. The agency hosted a flu-related press conference at the end of September and has been very active about the virus on social media in recent weeks.

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