While we have become used to candy corn and Halloween costumes appearing on store shelves in August, one sign of autumn is appearing much earlier than usual: Retail chains, including Publix, CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens, are announcing flu shot programs now, instead of waiting for October.
While stores have little to say about the availability and suggested timing of flu vaccines -- the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does that -- "if earlier flu shots turn out to be the rule rather than the exception, that can be hugely beneficial for retailers," Tom Charland, CEO of Merchant Medicine, a retail clinic consultancy, tells Marketing Daily.
That's because the rise of retailers as healthcare providers -- something that on the surface sounds smarter than Starbucks, especially to the stressed-out working parents they serve -- has been hampered by seasonality. To make money, clinics need to see at least two people an hour, he says. So despite the business model's potential and ambitious plans from chains like Wal-Mart and Target, there are still only some 1,200 of these types of clinics in the U.S., as retailers shut them down almost as fast as they open new ones.
"With Starbucks, people want coffee all year long. But what keeps these clinics busy is upper-respiratory issues, like bronchitis, ear infections, and pink eye. And these are things that happen mostly between December and March," he says. Worse, such visits can't be scheduled, making staffing more difficult.
Clinics are slowly finding ways to address the seasonality issue, he says, such as scheduling back-to-school and sports physicals for kids in August, and camp checkups in the spring. "Since flu shots can be scheduled, and if they continually happen earlier in the year," says Charland, "that would be very helpful."
Last year, massive concern about H1NI prompted a certain amount of consumer confusion about who needed a regular flu shot and who needed H1N1 immunizations. This year, only one vaccine is required to protect against three influenza strains, including the H1N1 virus and the seasonal H3N2 virus. But the CDC has expanded its recommendations, for the first time suggesting that anyone six months or older get vaccinated, as opposed to previous recommendations for certain risk groups.
Marketers are stressing convenience. For example, CVS, which also owns MinuteClinics, is offering online scheduling for the first time. Walgreens, which owns Duane Reade and Take Care Clinics, is giving flu shots daily, with no appointment required. Walgreens is also offering a new, direct medical billing option through several insurance carriers, so shoppers won't even have to wait for reimbursement for the $29.99 flu shot, or the $34.99 FluMist nasal vaccine, and it is even selling flu shot gift cards.
"Clinics are whittling away at this off-season problem," Charland says. "They're profitable in the busy months. And once they can find ways to at least break even in the off-season, we'll see a lot more of these clinics springing up. And this year, the earlier vaccine means more consumers will have access to shots," he says. "It's a win/win."