Consuming Issues: Which chemist is cheapest: high street or online?

Websites offer cut-price deals for packaged goods that remain the same regardless of vendor such as stereos, perfumes and DVDs. In the past few years online chemists have promised to undercut high-street prices charges, so how competitive are they?

A price test organised by The Independent this week suggests that surprisingly, high-street shops offer the best-value pills and potions, unless you are buying a lot of products – when the balance is tipped in favour of the cheapest e-tailer, Chemist Direct.

So, this is what we did: we checked the price at six outlets, three online and three on a high street, of six common products: 16 generic paracetamol tablets, 60 Clarityn allergy tablets, 15g Bonjela Cool Mint gel, 250ml of E45 Wash Cream, 50 Multibionta vitamin tablets and Huggies Natural Care wipes (64).

We chose the products because they are widely available – missing on only four occasions – and came to an amount that might be spent on an ordinary visit to the chemist. Where an item was not available, we substituted the usual price charged by rivals.

So who was cheapest? Online prices ranged from £27.27 to £31.86, more than those charged on the high street, which varied from £25.01 to £29.96.

Superdrug was the cheapest, £25.01 – £6 less than the most expensive, which cost £31.86 including £3.95 post and packing.

Boots came in the middle of both online and high street-shops. The most expensive web shop was Lloyds and the most expensive physical one the independent pharmacy, which did not have three items.

But had the products not been under the £40 triggering free delivery, Chemist Direct would have been the cheapest of all, charging £24.32.

Given the general competitiveness of the high street, though, why would anyone visit an online chemist? After all, they do not offer the personal touch offered by physical sales staff and pharmacists.

There seem to be three reasons. Firstly, and rather obviously, e-tailers are convenient for people who find it difficult to visit shops, either because they live in remote locations such as hillside villages, or are elderly, disabled or otherwise immobile.

Web chemists can save money, particularly for bulk buys where people are assembling a medical kit, preparing for a foreign holiday or who have chronic conditions that require regular non-prescription medicines.

But there's another reason for the success of the online chemists: embarrassment. Madness would not need now to pen a a number one hit like "House of Fun", about a boy on his 16th birthday attempting to buy condoms at a chemist.

Under the "Embarrassing" section of web chemists can be found ointments and potions for acne, eczema, excessive sweating, worms, diarrhoea, impotence and something called "jock itch". And who can say that's a bad thing?

Pharmacies compared


- Lloyds – £31.86
- Boots – £30.86
- Chemist Direct – £27.27

High street

- Independent – £29.96
- Boots – £27.96
- Superdrug – £25.01

* Online prices include about £3 P&P

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