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Nathan Golia
Nathan Golia
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UnitedHealth Hops on Retail Bandwagon

The health insurer has opened several retail stores over the past year.

A Bloomberg report today goes into UnitedHealth Group's retail store experiment. The company has joined other health insurers in turning to bricks and mortar to help it adapt to a new selling paradigm for health insurance.

These stories are fairly common, and much like insurers simply launching smartphone apps I suspect health insurance retail stores will eventually cease to be too newsworthy. But innovation within the environment — whether smartphone apps or retail stores — will continue to be, and that's why I think the section of this article which quotes a healthcare consultant is interesting:

Whether the locations succeed in luring sizable new business will depend on their ability to provide useful services, rather than serve as marketing gimmicks, said Marc Pierce, the founder of Stonegate Advisors, a Chicago-based firm that advises health plans on retail strategy.

Customers may get premium discounts if they attend in-store wellness programs, he said. Or insurers can offer experts to navigate the complexities of the health law, providing a health- care version of the “Genius Bar” at Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s retail outlets.

“If you can truly demonstrate you’ve got a ‘Genius Bar’ of health care, where people can get answers to questions that they couldn’t get anywhere else,” Pierce said, “then you can see it taking off.”

Soon, insurers may be motivated by more than just distribution in opening these stores. The Apple reference is interesting: That company succeeded not by jamming its product into established retail best practices, but by innovating within the retail store environment. Health insurers probably aren't going to make a ton of sales from walk-ins — but by encouraging repeat visits, opportunities to upsell/cross-sell or reduce risk of their customers with wellness programs could make the channel profitable. After all, online wellness programs are interesting, but largely unenforceable, and therefore can't really be used for much premium reduction.

What other ways can having non-virtual access to customers assist health insurers in pricing, discounting, and risk management? It's interesting, by the way, that this is sort of the opposite approach auto insurers are taking: Telematics and usage-based insurance programs are asking for less end-user involvement, not more.

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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