The Covid-19 Vaccine Is Cementing Retail’s Role in US Healthcare

Brand perception should benefit overall

illustration of a building being given a vaccine
Walmart has begun administering the Covid-19 vaccine to healthcare workers, and CVS Health and Walgreens are providing vaccines in long-term care facilities. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Retail and healthcare, which were long two distinct entities, continue to merge in 2021 as retailers seek to address Americans’ health needs.

Case in point: Walmart has begun administering the Covid-19 vaccine to healthcare workers in New Mexico, while CVS Health and Walgreens are providing vaccines in long-term care facilities in multiple states. They—along with retailers including Target and Albertsons—plan to start vaccinating the general public in the spring or summer, based on both vaccine availability and the CDC’s distribution schedule.

It’s the latest sign of the expanding role retailers play in American healthcare, following efforts like prescription delivery from Amazon and primary care clinics from Walmart and Walgreens.

‘A very big blurring of lines’

According to Patrick Wisnom, global client leader for Johnson & Johnson at advertising agency WPP, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“The migration towards more healthcare services being provided by these retailers that consumers are very familiar with and have real access to is a trend we’re going to see accelerate beyond access to medicine,” he said.

That could include services like telehealth.

“You’re going to start seeing a very big blurring of lines between what has been a traditional retailer and what can become a healthcare provider,” Wisnom added. “It’s trillions and trillions of dollars … available to different business models, and organizations are going to look to capitalize on that.”

But, with multiple vaccines still in development, Wisnom said there’s no way to know when a Covid-19 vaccine will be widely available. However, he noted healthcare experts say Covid will possibly have to be managed like the flu, so we may see these vaccines become annual rites like flu shots, which have long been provided by retail pharmacies.

Part of the solution

And while analysts are skeptical the vaccine alone will boost brand loyalty, Wisnom noted that “being seen as part of the solution for the pandemic is a positive thing.”

That’s in part why craft brewery BrewDog is in talks with the U.K. government to turn its 50 pubs—now closed with the country in lockdown—into vaccination centers. In the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reports public health officials in multiple states are using vacant Sears locations for the same purpose thanks in part to the sheer size of the former department stores, which are ideal for social distancing and easy to access from highways.

“Clearly there is a view from brands that being seen as part of the solution has the opportunity to gain loyalty or create more brand salience with consumers,” Wisnom said of BrewDog.

A vested interest

Providing vaccinations is also a way to encourage customers to come back to stores and could help win over some new shoppers—but only if retailers provide a seamless experience without “long lines and chaos,” said Raj Shroff, principal at Pine Strategy and Design, which works with retailers on in-store strategies.

“Foot traffic for many of these stores is down, and they have to practice social distancing and occupancy limits both for employees as well as patrons, which limits their sales potential,” added Andrea Leigh, vice president of strategy and insights at Amazon agency Ideoclick. “The faster people get immunized, the better.”

For her part, physician Monya De noted the relief consumers will feel after “finally getting the vaccine after waiting through a year in lockdown,” which will bring on a rush of endorphins and increased awareness of their surroundings, which is “the perfect recipe for a binge shop.”

@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.
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