There is now a mental health clinic inside a Walmart Supercenter

The headline of this story has been changed to clarify that Beacon Health is leasing space inside Walmart.

At the Carrollton, Texas, Walmart Supercenter, customers can now add a therapy session to a grocery run.

The clinic, which rolled out this week, is a pilot program run by Boston-based behavioral health provider Beacon Health Options; the company is leasing space inside the Supercenter. In it, it’s offering therapy sessions for customers for depression, anxiety and stress, grief and relationships. The program is an indirect way Walmart can extend its reach into healthcare, building on moves earlier this year, including a tie-up with health insurer Anthem, launched in August, to improve over the counter drug access for seniors, and reports of early-stage acquisition talks with Humana, a health insurance company, in March.

Christina Mainelli, chief growth officer at Beacon Health Options, said the company is using a retail footprint to apply a consumer-influenced approach to how it offers the services. These include the ability to serve customers beyond normal working hours, as well as ways to reach providers beyond physical meeting spaces, including through Skype and from next year onwards, text messaging. Walmart and Beacon Health Options won’t share customer data as part of the arrangement.

“It’s where people are finding themselves on a day to day basis — they’re in retail settings in the midst of the activities of daily life,” said Mainelli. “The goal is to provide increased access to quality care.”

It’s also the most recent example of a retailer repurposing physical stores into service hubs as more customers purchase necessities online. Traditional stores are turning to this model to keep foot traffic coming in by adding more value propositions. Home Depot offers in-store advisory services for customers working on home improvement projects, for instance, while Office Depot is using some of its store space to offer co-working and business consulting services.

Walmart would not comment for this story, but the in-store mental health service offering is another component of a bigger push from the retailer to become a family-oriented service hub. Walmart’s broad reach among the U.S. population is a foundation upon which to build these added services: According to Walmart, 150 million customers move through its 4,800 stores every week.

“Walmart has a good tradition of being on trend with what people need; they moved services to the front of the store — some have McDonald’s and Subway restaurants and dry cleaners,” said Curt Munk, evp and head of strategy at FCB/RED, the retail arm of agency FCB. In addition, Walmart recently announced plans to build “town centers,” or campuses where people shop, dine, exercise and take part in community activities.

Mental health clinics, and other health care services, help tie customers to the brand and create more reasons to visit physical locations. By working with a third-party provider, the retailer can help manage some of the risk involved, said Jeff Becker, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

“Anything that keeps customers coming through the front door of a Walmart is a good strategy as sales erode to online shopping,” Becker said in an email. “By leveraging a third-party mental health provider to offer these services, there is very little risk for Walmart, beyond the opportunity loss of what they have done with the physical space occupied by the clinic.”

The challenge, he added, will be to keep costs reasonable for customers. Sessions will cost $25 to $30 as part of an early promotion, but prices will jump to $110 to $140 in February (the company will offer a sliding fee scale for uninsured customers).

“Retail clinic-based mental health aligns with the economic reality of traditional retail clinics – they will improve access to care and improve the member experience, but it is unlikely that they will meaningfully reduce the cost of care,” said Becker. “The prices per session noted in the announcement align with the average price of a therapy session.”

Beacon Health Options will be closely monitoring traffic over the next 90 days to help determine the next steps beyond the Carrollton pilot, including expansion to new markets. Mainelli said the company is also considering other retailers as physical hubs for its mental health services offerings.

“There’s so much disruption going on in healthcare that’s allowing individuals who work in healthcare to think outside of the box and expand the limits of what’s possible in meeting the needs of patients in a better way,” she said.

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