Blue Cross and Blue Shield Florida moves into high-traffic storefronts

Buying health insurance has become such a complex decision that Blue Cross and Blue Shield Florida is trying a new sales tactic: storefronts near big malls.

In this age of online 24/7, who would have guessed this?

"Today's far higher deductibles and the fact fewer employers even offer coverage means we have to help people navigate health decisions face to face and balance price and quality that fits their needs," says Michael Guyette, senior vice president of sales for the state's biggest private health insurer.

By year's end, the Jacksonville insurer will open two 4,000-square-foot Florida Blue stores in Tampa and Orlando. Site selection is under way for stores twice the size of pilot stores that draw about 100 people a day in Jacksonville and Pembroke Pines.

With more options than ever and Obamacare on the horizon with the promise of open competition from a new government plan, some experts think the direct sales will be a competitive necessity as more employers let employees fend for themselves. So far Blue Cross affiliates in two states have copied the Florida test.

The temptation is to say health insurance will be sold more like the bewildering cell phone options at Wireless Toyz. But Florida Blue stores are supposed to work more like Apple Stores.

A concierge greets you and self-serve kiosks are there for do-it-yourselfers. Or you may seek private cubicles stocked with salespeople. The stores also have a kids' play area, a juice bar and space for wellness programs. Each store has a registered nurse waiting to help sort out information on pending treatment decisions.

Company stores are not new for health plans. But until now they've been for retirees, not the 18-to-65 set.

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For the first time, 7-Eleven has put its franchises on special, offering a 10 percent franchise fee discount to U.S. military veterans. The offer comes after the recession slowed sales of the convenience store giant's Florida stores, which are switching from company-run to franchised.

Two years into the effort, 382 stores remain available in Florida, 67 of them in the Tampa Bay area, while 108 stores, 16 of them in the bay area, were sold.

Depending on store volume, the one-time fee ranges from $150,000 to $220,000.

Chief executive Joe DePinto, an Army vet and West Point grad, offered veterans a deal for reasons other than a sales lift.

"We've learned military training provides skills — discipline and focus on the mission — that mirror what makes our store owners successful," said Margaret Chabris, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc.

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The surprise merger between the two biggest national retail trade groups has been scotched after an intense internal debate.

The National Retail Federation, the larger lobbying organization, and the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which has it roots in Wal-Mart Stores but now includes big-box chains and many suppliers, jointly called off the deal that had been designed as a money-saving way for retailers to speak in a single voice in national government policy.

"There were many complications," said Ron Sacino, president of a St. Petersburg formal wear chain and one of a dozen members of the NRF executive committee. "But a lot of it was small- and medium-sized retailers feared our voice would be lost to the big-box stores."

Blue Cross and Blue Shield Florida moves into high-traffic storefronts 07/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 8:50pm]

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