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Walgreens charging forward in electric car plug-in stations

"Charge it" may soon have new meaning at shopping malls and retail centers across the country.

As sales of electric cars begin to pick up, retailers nationwide are installing electric vehicle charging stations in their parking lots so customers can plug in and juice up their vehicles while browsing inside.

Leading the way is drugstore chain Walgreen Co., which is installing chargers at about 800 stores nationwide.

Macy's Inc. is installing chargers at a handful of department stores in San Diego. Kohl's Corp. is undertaking a pilot program to equip 33 stores nationwide with charging stations, and Best Buy said it will test them at 12 locations.

Retailers view the chargers as a good investment for the future, a way to one-up competitors and burnish a green reputation.

Although adoption of electric cars has been tepid so far -- only about 17,000 sold in the U.S. last year -- many retail chains are hoping to win good will with eco-conscious, high-income customers by offering an amenity that very few actually need yet.

California leads the nation with about 89,000 registered electric cars on the road last year, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

One roadblock for electric car sales has been the need for drivers to regularly recharge the batteries and the limited number of public places to do so.

There's even a term for it: "range anxiety," or the fear of getting stranded on the road with no outlet in sight. Only 5,084 public chargers are scattered around the country, and more than a quarter of them are in California, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Retailers are moving quickly to fill that void. And, for now, most are providing electricity for free.

At Walgreens "we said, 'Let's lead in this area,' " said Menno Enters, the Deerfield, Ill., drugstore chain's director of energy and sustainability. "We're all about convenience, and many of our stores are located around commuter routes. We realized that Walgreens was ideally situated to implement a strategy for electric chargers."

If the electric car movement takes off, Walgreens is hoping to snatch sales from nearby gas stations that "seek the same convenience-type customers," Enters said.

In the past three months, furniture giant Ikea has equipped five California stores, one in Portland, Ore., and one in Seattle with stations.

The chargers have been conversation pieces, said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth.

"You can just stand and watch folks driving by in the parking lot. They see the space and you can kind of see that 'oh wow, that's kind of neat' look on their faces," Roth said. "We view it as another aspect of the shopping experience."

Some retailers are already hoping to squeeze some green out of being green.

The famous Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., charges $3 per hour for its chargers.