How Walgreens is using an online marketplace to compete against Amazon

Walgreens wants to tell its customers it’s more than a place to buy pills. It’s gunning to become a one-stop shop for health care.

On Thursday, it launched Find Care Now, a dedicated section of its website and app where customers can search for medical services in their area with upfront pricing. Through it, Walgreens can move further into service delivery, adding a digital layer to its on-site clinics and specialized services like dermatology and mental health through tie-ups with local health-care providers.

Walgreens is working 17 providers nationally, including NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital, DermatologistOnCall and national telehealth service MDLive. Examples of services include “get dermatology care online,” with average wait time of 24 hours for $99, and “talk with a doctor by phone or video,” for $59 with average wait time of 14 minutes.

“The strategy behind this is basically making our health offerings more omnichannel, with the starting point being what Walgreens is doing in its stores [with on-site clinics]” said Giovanni Monti, vp and director of healthcare innovation at Walgreens-Boots Alliance.

Walgreens is listing cash prices for services, but it said some may be covered by customers’ insurance plans. Walgreens’ digital marketplace model for health-care services follows consumer retail’s shift towards models like Amazon or eBay. It lets Walgreens stake out a competitive position against online-only upstarts getting into health care, and other large retailers like CVS and Walmart that are offering on-site medical services.

“We all know and have seen in our lives that so many other industries have become so much more convenient; it’s easy to book restaurants and holidays thanks to marketplaces or services available,” Monti said. “With Find Care Now, this is extended to broader health care.”

Health care is still a largely manual and confusing process for many U.S. consumers; a recent Ipsos poll reported that 38 percent of Americans found it “very or somewhat difficult” to understand their medical bills. Customers may be looking for a health-care customer experience that’s similar to how they buy goods online or hail rides through Lyft or Uber.

[Customers] are waiting for health care to catch up with the rest of their lives that are delivered through digital apps,” said Arielle Trzcinski, senior analyst at Forrester Research. The presentation of services through Find Care Now mirrors the way Amazon presents its products, she added.

Walgreens rolls out Find Care Now as other large pharmacy players inch toward health-care service delivery, with CVS making moves to acquire insurer Aetna, Walmart reportedly in talks to acquire Humana, and Amazon acquiring pharmacy startup PillPack.

“There’s no reason Amazon couldn’t act as a marketplace for [health-care] services,” said Neil Saunders, managing director responsible for retail and health care at GlobalData. “Walgreens is very conscious that Amazon is going to enter pharmacy and making more of an assault on the health-care space; Walgreens has to find other ways to make itself relevant and drive consumers to its site, and the digital app and offering services is a way to do that.”

Walgreens said the decision to launch Find Care Now was guided by user research that suggested customers would be open to it. While health insurers are increasingly launching their own digital-only services, Walgreens said it doesn’t see them as competition.

“Ultimately, their members are our customers, and they use our apps and come to our stores so much more frequently than they do with apps from other parts of the health-care value chain,” Monti said. “The fact that insurers are developing more digital services in a more onmichannel way presents a big opportunity for us to help create more integrated journeys [for customers].”

Walgreens said its app has been downloaded more than 50 million times.

The retailer is capitalizing on a strong brand affinity in the health-care field. Find Care Now’s success will depend largely on how partners fulfill that brand promise.

“They risk injuring their brand equity if a shopper or patient has a less-than-favorable engagement,” said Jim Cusson, president of retail marketing agency Theory House. “Walgreens has a much higher level of trust at this point than Amazon when it comes to caring for the family, so I give them the advantage in growing a service model like this.”

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