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CVS’s Good-Health Mission Raises Burning Question: Should Shoppers Care?

If there was ever doubt that CVS Health Corp. has skin in the health-care game, its latest product decision puts it to rest.

Photographer: Emily Harris.

The $177 billion pharmacy chain, self-described as a “company helping people on their path to better health,” will no longer carry sun-care items with an SPF of less than 15. This follows previous decisions to stop selling tobacco items (in 2014) and removing trans fats from its store-branded foods (in January).

So in addition to standing up for our lungs and hearts, CVS is covering our hides. And it does so with a very broad corporate direction in mind: CVS wants to be more than a mere retailer; it wants to help shape the future of health care. And by extension, it wants to improve the health of its shoppers.

“We looked at our sun-care offerings and felt we should offer customers choices for sunscreen that either meets or exceeds FDA standards,” Judy Sansone, a senior vice president for CVS, told TODAY. “When people use SPF below 15, they are not really getting protection from the sun.”

It is a noble cause, especially since CVS could lose sales as a result. The bigger risk is that its on-shelf changes fail to attract more health-conscious consumers. Its first-quarter financials indicate softer traffic, so any positive message — and experience — would be welcome.

Learning From Cold Turkey

The hazard for a retailer pulling any product or brand off its shelves is that it will alienate shoppers who came for that item. This was a primary observation when CVS decided, in September 2014, to stop selling nicotine products.

With an estimated 44 million Americans smoking in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was likely CVS’s decision would affect a sizeable segment of its customer base. But sales rose, to $153.3 billion in 2015 from $139.4 billion in 2014 and $126.8 billion in 2013. This was despite expectations, by CVS, that sales would decline by $2 billion as a result of the decision (that was the estimated total of tobacco sales in 2014).

Also in the year after it went cold turkey, CVS changed its name from CVS Caremark to CVS Health. It additionally became retail partners with Target, which agreed to sell its pharmacy business to CVS.

The partnership expanded the CVS sales footprint, and therefore its customer base. CVS posted 2016 revenue of $177.5 billion.

Needing Healthy Recovery

This year’s first-quarter performance, though, indicates fewer shoppers are coming to CVS stores, or that shoppers in general are coming less frequently.

Front-stores sales, where non-pharmacy goods such as cosmetics and food are sold, declined by 4.9% at stores open at least a year. CVS attributed the decline, in part, to a rationalization of its promotional strategy as well as the shift of the Easter holiday to the second quarter 2017.

Still, the company is throwing its shoulder behind a recovery, and it relies heavily on a continued dedication to healthy choices. In particular, CVS is applying a new store design to 70 locations that will expand its beauty, health-care and personal-care businesses, according to a slide deck presented with its earnings call, covered by Seeking Alpha. These new store formats will include wider assortments of healthier foods and health-focused products.

The chain also is exploring its digital capabilities, including in health and pharmacy. Ideas include curbside pickup and same-day delivery.

Lastly, CVS intends to extend its share of store-branded products, which generate 22.8% of front-store sales, by “building on core equities in health and beauty,” the company said.

Enter the trans fat decision. Enter skin health.

Winning Hearts and Hides

CVS’s choice to remove trans fats from its store brands came in January, 18 months ahead of the Food and Drug Administration’s deadline for processed foods to be reformulated without artificial trans fats. The decision to pull products with less than an SPF 15 rating follows CVS’s “Long Live Skin” campaign, which includes advertisements of women sharing advice they wish they had given their younger selves, such as to wear sunscreen. SPF 15 is the FDA’s minimum recommendation against sunburn and cancer.

It’s possible shoppers won’t notice either change, which raises the question of whether these efforts matter. We can argue they do if they support CVS’s goal to “drive innovations that will help shape the future of health care,” as it explains in its annual report.

CVS has chosen its role. Still, while it is important to take a strong stance on health in the market, whether that is enough is the real question.

For its efforts to resonate, CVS has to pair its on-shelf options with an experience that is equally healthy, meaning free of stress and frustration. Same-day delivery and other digital ideas should help.

The CEO of CVS, Larry Merlo, said in a statement that he expects 2017 to be “a rebuilding year.” That takes more than a good-for-you product mix. The most reliable foundation to the rebuilding will be a shopper base that is satisfied, and even feels good, with each trip.

That’s the elixir for good retail health.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.

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