Cathie Anderson: Insurers introduce stores, TV ads as they vie for individual consumers

K aiser Permanente has opened six retail stores to educate consumers about its health care plans. Last year, for the first time, regional player Western Health Advantage launched a television advertising campaign.

While health insurers are still doing more business with companies than with individual consumers, they clearly see the landscape shifting as the United States moves toward a system where everyone has to buy insurance and many people qualify for subsidies to help pay for it.

“One of the most important things people need is information to make the right decisions for themselves and their family,” said Trish Rodriguez, the area manager for Kaiser in south Sacramento. “This is a new venture for us, but I think it’s the right thing at the right time.”

Kaiser realized how much demand there was for information after opening a kiosk at the Westfield Galleria at Roseville a little over a year ago, Rodriguez said. More than 6,000 people have stopped there to ask questions about health care.

At the ShopKP stores at 6035 Florin Road and 3661 N. Freeway Blvd. in Sacramento, customers can use iPads and laptops to view all insurers’ options, and if they decide to sign up with Kaiser, they can get private counseling in rooms at the rear of the store.

Rick Heron, the chief marketing officer at Western Health, said his company has only one retail outlet, its headquarters at 2349 Gateway Oaks Drive in Sacramento. But it has stepped up its game with TV ads as well as sophisticated Web advertising and tracking.

“The biggest challenge ... is we’ve got to keep up with these huge multi-state, well-funded conglomerates like Kaiser and Blue Shield and Health Net,” Heron said.

Virtually all the insurers, no matter their size, have purchased vehicles and wrapped them in their branding. Employees drive them to public events to meet consumers where they are.

It’s time for ‘Who’

Ever wonder how long it would take to build a time machine? The staff over at Stage Nine Exhibit Design did it in about two months, at a cost of only $5,000 or so.

OK, OK, so it’s not a working time machine. Fans of the British sci-fi series “Doctor Who” won’t care. They’ll be too busy inspecting every detail of the Stage Nine’s TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) machine to see if it lives up to the one on the BBC series.

The TARDIS and all things “Doctor Who” are receiving the royal treatment worldwide because our cousins across the pond have been honoring the show’s golden jubilee all year long. The fun culminates todaywith “The Day of the Doctor,” a special episode in both 2-D and 3-D that will air on BBC One and in select theaters around the globe. It arrives in local theaters Wednesday.

Dr. Who fans can take pictures with Stage Nine’s TARDIS from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and Sunday at 102 K St. Owner Troy Carlson expects to see Zygons, Daleks and Doctors Who galore.

“The TARDIS is based off the English phone booth,” Carlson said, “so the sides of it were just really intricate woodwork with molding. So, that’s what took the most time. We had to put windows on it and make sure there were working doors. ... If we were going to do it, we wanted to do it exactly as it would be.”

Help SMUD help you

The Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District has tried cold-calling and emailing its business customers to get feedback, and it will keep doing those things, but what it really wants is ongoing feedback from about 2,000 of you.

“We’re really trying to get to know our customers, so we can help provide better services, better programs, pricing and rates ... so we’re doing a research project where we’re building a panel of customers,” said Roger Chang, a senior demand-side specialist for SMUD. “It could be a small-business owner. It could be a facilities manager. It could be the person who processes the bill.”

Chang said SMUD is building a sample panel that’s representative of the local commercial market. Participants will receive one or two surveys a month, but they don’t have to answer each one. The thing is, each time they do, they’ll be entered to win a $200 Amazon gift card. Three will be given away monthly.

That might sound costly for SMUD, but it’s actually cheaper than doing cold calls or sending out blast emails because panel members are more likely to follow through with feedback.

The real bonus for SMUD, Chang said, is that it gets to monitor how panelists’ opinions and energy use change over time as they’re exposed to new ideas. To sign up for the panel, visit www.smudpowervoice.com.