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Innovator Spotlight: Walgreens - Putting an API Around Their Stores

Martha Jager
Aug 07, 2012

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Walgreens is the largest drugstore chain in the United States, operating more than 7,900 drugstores across the country. Each day, Walgreens provides nearly 6 million customers with convenient, multichannel access to consumer goods and services and trusted, cost-effective pharmacy, health and wellness services and advice. In July, 2012, Walgreens built on its tradition of technology innovation with the introduction of its first open API, QuickPrints.

We spoke to Joe Rago, senior product manager for Walgreens Mobile, about Walgreens' foray into open APIs with QuickPrints and their vision to "put an API around our stores." 

Why did Walgreens adopt an API strategy?

At the highest level, we've always been focused on giving our customers the ability to interact with Walgreens through a number of different channels, and this has evolved over time. The company launched Walgreens.com in the mid-1990s to expand its reach and  followed that up with a  mobile website in 2007. Then in 2009, we offered our first native application on the iPhone platform with other native apps that followed for Android (phone), BlackBerry, Windows Phone, iPad and Kindle Fire.  Delivering an open API to foster a broad array of third-party apps that leverage Walgreens services was a natural next step.

The need for the QuickPrints API specifically came to me when I was on my iPhone, looking in the camera roll and the only option was to tie into a printer—which many people don’t have immediate access to. To print photos, you need the right kind of printer, paper and ink—not everyone has this. We knew that printing to Walgreens from a mobile device would be easy for people and would give them quality prints.

What APIs does Walgreens offer today?

Our first open API is for QuickPrints, a Walgreens service that enables photo printing directly from iPhone, iPad and Android mobile devices. Quick Prints lets mobile users print 4x6, 5x7 or 8x10 photos directly from their phone and pick them up at Walgreens 7900+ stores nationwide in about an hour. Today, developers are able to add the “print to Walgreens” function in their apps using the QuickPrints SDK.

Who are the primary users of your APIs?

The QuickPrints SDK has always been designed for use by third parties, but at first, we worked on it and used it internally. Walgreens was essentially our first partner.  After we fine-tuned it internally, we worked with select Walgreen's developers on apps. And then just recently, we offered QuickPrints as an open SDK, available for any third-party developer to use. 

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What were some challenges?

One of our challenges has been to keep up with the speed at which the third-party developers work while ensuring a high level of photo print quality. It's totally up to the developer how they want to integrate the QuickPrints feature into their app, and we want to support and foster this open innovation. However, to ensure the proper quality of image output, we do testing with each QuickPrints application to ensure the image quality output is at a suitable level.

Requests for the SDK come in one day, and the next day, there's a functional app integration.  Updates come out, and a few minutes later, there's a new build. We don't want to have another app store-like review process, but we do need some control as the end customer is ultimately interacting with a Walgreens location. So keeping up with the fast pace of independent developers and the overwhelming interest in the QuickPrints SDK has been our main, albeit a pleasant, challenge.

How are you working with Apigee?

We've been working with Apigee for a long time to get our API program up and running. We started development in the fall of 2011 to launch the Web services platform itself (launched in January 2012). Before we offered it to third parties, everything was routed through Apigee. We also worked with the team at Apigee on launching both our internal and external developer portals. 

We've had an excellent relationship with Apigee, which provides not only the technology we need to deliver and the scale for our API, but also expert support. 

What is your vision moving forward?

Our goal is to essentially put an API around our stores. We want to think of all the key functions that customers need and have those exist in an API, with Web services for third parties to work with.

We started with the photo print feature, but our goal is to expand to all areas of the business, from pharmacy to the health and daily living shopping experience. With QuickPrints specifically, we want to have thousands of photo apps, millions of users and lots of developer relationships. 

Walgreens is a traditional company that has consistently made technology innovation a priority – why?

I think we definitely want to be at the forefront of new technologies, mobile technologies specifically, because this is such an important market.  We watch technology developments very closely and try to take advantage of new functionality to benefit Walgreens and our customers.  We are aware of not only the potential for technology innovation in our specific market, but also how it's being adopted and used globally by all technology companies.

What advice would you give to organizations just beginning their API journey?

If you have technology that you are using internally, and you can leverage it to the third-party community without re-engineering it, it makes sense to use it both internally and externally. Look at what you do with a 360 degree view, and think globally about how a given feature could be exploited if offered externally. It's important to leverage the large and growing developer community out there.  The goal is to drive customer interactions—it doesn't matter where it starts from—because it's all flowing into your business.

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