November 5, 2008, 12:00 AM

Walgreen writes an online prescription for a digital community

The number of active shoppers on Walgreens.com has risen by 175% over the last four years, but the web site is fragmented, senior vice president of e-commerce Sona Chawla said at a recent investor’s meeting. The remedy: a digital community.

Walgreen Co. is phasing in a different approach to e-commerce that emphasizes communities and social networking.

“We will soon be taking the online experience to the next level,” Walgreen senior vice president of e-commerce Sona Chawla told Wall Street analysts and others at a recent investor’s meeting. Today Walgreen, No. 70 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, does an adequate job of using its web site to drive store traffic, Chawla told attendees.

In the past four years, the number of active shoppers who’ve made at least one online purchase annually on Walgreens.com has risen by 175% from 4 million customers in 2005 to 11 million in 2008. The number of monthly unique visitors to Walgreens.com also has grown from 3 million in 2005 to 7 million in 2008, an increase of 133%.

But Walgreens.com still is a fragmented e-commerce site that’s built for processing transactions – and not for getting Walgreen’s shoppers all of the information they want in the format they want it, Chawla told attendees. “We built this web site on the back of our retail store business,” Chawla said. “Going forward we don’t just want to be focused on the ‘buy’ part of the shopping cycle, but also on what our customers want to learn.”

Walgreen has fulfilled prescriptions online since 1999 and added digital photo services in 2005. “These are our two biggest drivers,” she said. In the near future Walgreen will add customer reviews and other community tools to the e-commerce site. Walgreen also will use more targeted search, affiliate and e-mail marketing to enhance Walgreens.com with more online community features. In addition to shopping, web visitors will be able to research health care content, fill and refill prescriptions, seek advice from Walgreen health care professionals, post product reviews, and shop in a community-oriented environment. “We will help them to learn, buy and use,” she said.

Chawla was vice president of global online business at Dell Inc. before joining Walgreen in June.

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