The Ratings Game: Walgreens may be building the store of the future in Florida — but Wall Street is skeptical

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CVS Health Corp. is buying Aetna Inc., while Cigna Corp. is snapping up Express Scripts Holding Co. As health-care companies vertically integrate with high-priced deals across varied parts of the industry’s supply chain, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. WBA, -1.31% , its acquisition of rival Rite Aid’s RAD, -1.20% nearly 2,000 stores now complete, remains alone at the party.

Industry watchers have noticed — company shares have plummeted nearly 23% over the past year — and want to know what’s next. Answers, though, are scarce.

At a recent sell-side event, “management highlighted the company was focused on a new strategy for the stores, but would not share any details on the strategy for competitive reasons,” said Mizuho Securities analyst Ann Hynes, describing it as “strange” and “a bit puzzling.”

The company suggested that more details might be available in the next year, she said.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that big-ticket mergers elsewhere will be successful. Many are seemingly motivated by industry-wide consolidation, or describe vague, if lofty, goals.

Related: CVS-Aetna merger is not about the minute clinic, Aetna CEO says

But they do put pressure on Walgreens to articulate a long-term strategy, especially one that distinguishes it from its rivals.

Walgreens shares have dropped nearly 23% over the last year, more than its rivals. The company acquired nearly 2,000 of rival Rite Aid’s stores as other companies pursued vertical mergers.

The company has been offering more health-care services, including hearing, eye care and clinical lab testing, in 17 stores in Gainesville, Fla., according to Wall Street analysts present at last week’s sell-side analyst day.

See: Why more pharmacies could begin offering lab tests

This suggests a goal of becoming a health-care hub, said Leerink Partners analyst David Larsen, though “few details were provided around the results that these new stores are seeing, the costs of the store investments, and what exactly changed in those locations.”

See: U.S. health care is changing in a big way. The CVS-Aetna deal shows how and Cigna’s $67 billion acquisition of Express Scripts will change the way drug prices get calculated

Moreover, Walgreens doesn’t plan to add more clinics or urgent-care centers, so “it is unclear to us how WBA will truly transform the way in which care is delivered in their local communities,” Larsen said.

A “store of the future” that transforms consumer health also sounds a lot like the CVS-Aetna CVS, -1.86% AET, -0.99%  deal’s ambitions.

But unlike its rivals, Walgreens can get the benefits of vertical integration without its massive costs, through partnerships, Chief Executive Stefano Pessina told analysts, Larsen said.

Read: Walgreens CEO says Rite Aid deal will close soon

If valuations come down, though, Walgreens may try to buy drug distributor AmerisourceBergen Corp. ABC, -3.42% Larsen said, emulating the approach of the Cigna-Express Scripts deal CI, -1.89% ESRX, -1.28%

Walgreens shares have dropped nearly 9% over the last three months, compared with a 4% decline in CVS shares, a 0.7% rise in Express Scripts shares and a 0.9% decline in the S&P 500 SPX, -1.16%