retail health insuranceIn a shopping center in South Jersey ringed by retail stores like Best Buy and Barnes & Noble, shoppers can buy a totally different kind of product—health insurance.

Insurance companies and brokers across the country are stepping out of offices and business parks and into brick-and-mortar retail stores, setting up inside shopping malls and retail centers. It’s an unusual move for an industry that can operate for little cost online —but one that health insurance officials are embracing.

TIP: If you’re shopping around for a new health insurance policy, check your credit score first. A higher credit score may be able to get you a lower insurance premium.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) recently opened New Jersey’s first insurance retail center, Horizon Connect, offering consumers the opportunity to buy health insurance in the same way they would buy a cell phone.

Thomas Vincz, PR manager for Horizon BCBS, compares the retail outlet to an Apple or an AT&T store—the stores are less about selling products than they are about providing a place where customers can go to get services they need.

“It’s a very different type of environment, and people are getting used to that,” Vincz said. “We don’t think there’s anything better than one-on-one attention. Health insurance is complex. It can be confusing, and these staffers are trained specifically to meet a wide range of needs of customers and they are there to demystify health insurance.”

Other arms of Blue Cross Blue Shield have been operating several stores in Florida and Pennsylvania since as early as 2009, and the company is continuing to grow its retail presence. United Healthcare also recently opened a 16,000-square-foot facility in New York City.

Additionally, some insurance brokers are testing out new models such as agent-driven offices and retail hubs, such as HealthPlan Headquarters in Baltimore, Md.

HealthPlan Headquarters—a group of insurance brokers—opened its retail store last year, aiming to guide people new to the solo health insurance world. Its customers include people recently divorced to people who recently lost employer coverage.

“With the economic recession going on, a lot of companies were cutting benefits in order to stay open and keep employees, and so as those people hit the private insurance market, they were really being taken advantage of,” said Katrina Wilson, director of marketing and communications for HealthPlan Headquarters.

What health insurance retail outlets can offer customers

Customers can walk into these stores, look at plans and benefits, get direct assistance from agents, and purchase a policy. And if they already have insurance, customers are welcome to come in and ask questions about claims or benefits. Some of the stores also offer health seminars and wellness programs, such as BMI and blood sugar checks.

The retail model fits the recent trend in the healthcare industry, moving from a wholesale, employer-based model to a consumer-based model. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, from 2007 to 2011, people covered by their employers’ health plans dropped from 60.4 percent to 55.8 percent.

On top of the drop in employer-based insurance, millions of new health insurance customers are primed to hit the market in 2014. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all Americans are required to purchase insurance either through an employer, through state or federal exchanges, or privately.

The retail insurance option may be ready to explode as consumers look for an easier, more personal way of shopping around for insurance. But it’s hard to tell, Wilson argues.

“That’s the billion dollar question,” she said of the ACA. “It will either push a ton of people to us because everyone will need insurance, or it might not change anything.”

Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and Buy, Close, Move In!. She blogs about money and real estate at ThinkGlink.com and at the Home Equity blog for CBS MoneyWatch.