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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jun. 13, 200712:00 PM EST

Buying retail health insurance proving popular

by: Caroline Gabsewics

by Caroline Gabsewics

Staff Writer

It looks like a regular retail store with sales associates and items to purchase like ... health insurance? Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida opened Florida Blue, a retail store specializing in selling health insurance.

The store, located in the St. Johns Town Center, opened Feb. 26 and if the first three months are any indication, the concept of retail health insurance is a success.

“We are on track to exceed our projected numbers for the year,” said Jon Urbanek, vice president of sales and operations. “We had a certain number per month we needed to sell and we are exceeding that.

“We have sold 400 policies in three months.”

If that is any indication of the success the store is having, Jacksonville’s Florida Blue is paving the way for other stores like it throughout Florida.

In the past, Blue Cross and Blue Shield has operated predominantly business-to-business and now it’s business-to-community, said Craig Thomas, vice president of marketing.

The idea behind Florida Blue

Blue Cross and Blue Shield began talking about a different way to sell health insurance about a year-and-a-half ago.

“What we see is much more of a retail and consumer market,” said Thomas.

By following retail and consumer trends, they came up with Florida Blue and their new approach in selling health insurance, he said.

“We wanted to create personalized solutions to cater to every person’s needs,” said Thomas. “We tailored our products to fit different lifestyles.”

The store offers face-to-face interaction; customers can test products and get their questions answered.

“Health insurance is becoming more complicated, products are becoming more complex and the cost of health insurance is rising,” said Urbanek. “We needed to find a way to make it easier, simpler and more consumer friendly.”

Blue Cross and Blue Shield wanted to put together a consumer experience that made it easier to find the right plan as well as create a more efficient way to purchase insurance.

“As health insurance gets more complex, there is a real need for information and we wanted to find ways to answer customers’ questions,” said Urbanek. “We wanted to be a resource for the consumer-focused world.”

Not only has Blue Cross and Blue Shield developed a retail store, but they also have a mobile marketing vehicle — an oversized Mack truck — and they are in the process of developing a Web site. However, currently the store is its most visible marketing tool.

Urbanek said Blue Cross and Blue Shield got very serious about the idea of opening a retail store last April. They had found the perfect location and after that, it was up to building and designing the store.

“There was a lot of work done with the initial planning of the store because we had to start from scratch. Nothing has been done exactly like this before,” he said. “There have been different variations, but not to the extent of this.”

How does Florida Blue work?

Florida Blue is very similar to the Apple Store or any mobile phone store, offering a way to test the products, ask questions and, in the end, the customer hopefully will make a purchase.

“We wanted to provide our customers with a real warm and welcoming atmosphere,” said Urbanek. “Everything from the color scheme to the furniture and the design of the store is very inviting.”

When a customer enters the store, they are greeted by the concierge and in front of them is a plethora of information about health insurance.

Urbanek said there are licensed agents to help find the best product for each person. Other agents will sit privately with an individual to talk with them about the different plans.

There is also a “demo bar” where customers can go through the various plans and see how they will actually work in real-life situations. In the back of the store is a children’s area with books and a waiting area that can be used for seminars on anything from health and wellness to teeth whitening. There is also a self-service kiosk that allows customers to use the My Blue Service portal to access member services while they are waiting for an associate.

“Everywhere you turn there is information,” said Urbanek.

Walls are lined with information, including a large magnetic wall that can be changed when needed, said Nick Tant, retail store manager.

“It (the magnetic wall) is called the ‘Wall of Solutions’,” he said. “We can change the wall throughout the year to promote products or use it as an informational board.

“It is a very inviting environment and all about information.”

One of the biggest benefits to purchasing health insurance through the Florida Blue store is the time it takes to receive the insurance.

In the past, customers had to go home, fill out an application and send it back before they were insured.

“Insurance can take weeks to process,” said Urbanek. “But the transaction can be done in the store in as little as 30 minutes.”

Who shops at the store?

The store is for individuals and small business owners. A company like CSX would not come to the store to purchase insurance, but an individual who works at CSX could.

“There is a diverse group of people that come into the store,” said Urbanek. “Different demographics, seniors, young professionals and families.

“We cater to individuals and small businesses.”

Having the store at the St. Johns Town Center has helped bring in a lot of different people and others from outside of the First Coast area because the mall has become a destination.

“We have had people come in from as far north as Amelia Island and as far south as Daytona,” said Urbanek. “A majority of them are not current Blue Cross and Blue Shield customers.”

Urbanek added they have products now for small businesses that Blue Cross and Blue Shield never had before that are lower in cost and the plans offer more.

“The consumers are very appreciative and we have gotten great feedback,” said Urbanek. “It was difficult to get insurance before because people didn’t know where to go and this has made it very simple for folks. “The store has taken the fear out of the process.”

The future of Florida Blue

There are plans to open other Florida Blue stores around the state, but finding the perfect location is one of the first steps.

“We definitely want to expand, but we have to do it very thoughtfully,” said Urbanek.

There is an important factor that must go into finding the perfect location: major markets in key areas.

“That is a critical part, because it has to be a real destination like we have here,” he said. “This (the St. Johns Town Center) is the best place for us.”

Since its opening, the store has been extremely successful. Urbanek said they expected slow and steady growth, but since day one it has been anything but.

“The initial reaction to the store was a shock to us,” said Tant. “We thought it would have taken three to six months for the store to take off. But we have seen positive results since day one and that speaks highly to what we are trying to do.”

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