How Wal-Mart Got It Wrong with Plan B

Last Updated Mar 11, 2008 3:14 PM EDT

Remember the big flap two years ago about Wal-Mart's refusal to sell Barr Pharmaceuticals' emergency contraceptive, Plan B? Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005, and granted over-the-counter status in 2006, the morning-after pill became a retail anomaly: a widely anticipated new product that retailers wouldn't carry, fearing backlash from their socially conservative customers. Legal challenges forced Wal-Mart and others to relent, and guess what? Women spent $80 million on the OTC drug in its first year, making it one of 2007's hottest products.

While fighting off legal challenges that eventually caused the chain to reverse its stance on Plan B, Wal-Mart cited "low demand" for the product. But Information Resources Inc.'s list of 2007's best-selling new packaged goods ranks Plan B No. 8 among nonfood items. IRI's $61 million figure doesn't include Wal-Mart or clinics such as Planned Parenthood, which offers the drug at half its suggested price of $61 for two pills.

Reports that individual pharmacists at Wal-Mart, CVS Corp., Rite-Aid Corp. and Walgreen Co. had refused to dispense the drug for religious reasons have given way to chain policies guaranteeing the emergency contraceptive for women is available for sale at all times -- just as condoms are.

That's a home run by any measure. But it's particularly striking considering the flap engendered by Plan B's launch. The drug lowers the chance of pregnancy as much as 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Opponents threw everything but the kitchen sink at Plan B, from allegations that the drug was unsafe, to predictions that it would encourage promiscuity among teens. Advocates noted that Wal-Mart's dominance in rural America meant that the discount giant is the only drugstore in many small towns.

Rather than the predicted poor demand, Plan B doubled in sales after its OTC introduction, and helped Barr post a 12 percent gain in proprietary drug sales last year, and boosted the female contraceptive category 66.3 percent year over year, according to A.C. Nielsen. Sales were boosted by a tear-out card in the August issue of Glamour for women too shy to ask for Plan B out loud.

And there Plan B is on the IRI hot products list, along with Vault energy drinks and Gain Joyful Expressions, whose Gardenia Delight and Apple Mango Tango scents were described by an blogger as "refreshingly exciting for your laundry." Unlike Plan B, however, women don't have to ask their pharmacists for Gain Joyful Expressions.

  • Lisa Everitt

    A Denver-based business writer, Lisa Everitt is a veteran of daily and weekly newspapers and trade magazines, including The Natural Foods Merchandiser, Rocky Mountain News, Inter@ctive Week, San Francisco Business Times, and the Peninsula Times Tribune.