Shoppers who hit the nation's malls in coming months can add another item to their shopping lists -- health insurance.

As health reform efforts move toward letting consumers comparison-shop for coverage, insurance companies are diving into the world of retail, starting with low-cost, temporary "pop-up" stores timed to coincide with open-enrollment season.

Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare earlier this month opened 30 pop-up stores and more than 1,400 kiosks in shopping malls around the country to sign up seniors for its Medicare plans.

HealthPartners is testing a similar concept at Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka, while Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is setting up booths at 10 Walgreens stores around the state.

"We wanted to have an element of 'Wow, I wouldn't have thought I'd see you here,'" said HealthPartners executive vice president Andrea Walsh. The idea, she said, "was to be where consumers are ... as opposed to expecting them to come to us."

By 2020 more than 100 million consumers with $500 billion in purchasing power will be shopping for insurance, according to the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

Much of that growth will come as millions of individuals and small businesses come to new health insurance exchanges in 2014 as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.

But the fight for the lucrative Medicare business from the 65-and-older crowd -- which will grow to 80 million strong in the next two decades -- already is sparking competition among private insurers who contract with the government to provide Medicare benefits.

"This new retail market will make or break many existing and new players in the health care ecosystem," according to analysts Howard Lapsley and Tom Main of Oliver Wyman, who believe that insurers will need to understand consumer needs and build a familiar brand before customers arrive at the exchange "voting booth."

Bloomington-based HealthPartners will open a makeshift store in a hall at Ridgedale Center at the end of this month and pull up stakes on Dec. 22. The booth will be staffed early enough in the morning to catch the mall walkers and late enough in the evening for holiday shoppers and visitors to Santa to stop in.

Blue Cross, Minnesota's largest health plan, is testing its first retail outreach effort this year by putting agents inside Walgreens stores in nine cities -- St. Paul, Bemidji, Mankato, Waconia, Willmar, Fairmont, Faribault, Northfield and Buffalo.

"Through this partnership, we help create visibility for our Medicare portfolio, continue our educational outreach to members and potential members, and create additional opportunities for our agent sales channel," Jeremiah Wente, manager of Medicare and individual sales for the Eagan-based company, said in an e-mail. "We anticipate leveraging this retail approach further in the future."

UnitedHealthcare tried its first pop-up store in a mall in Kingsport, Tenn., last year during Medicare enrollment, which began Monday. It was so successful that the nation's largest insurer broadened the concept to malls in 13 states. None are in Minnesota, but there is one in Racine, Wis.

"For years the prominent way insurance policies were discussed and purchased was at the kitchen table," said Tom Paul, UnitedHealthcare's chief consumer officer. "Now we're finding more and more consumers want to have those dialogues in a community or more of a retail setting."

Permanent storefronts

United also has opened eight permanent retail storefronts in California and in a handful of cities on the East Coast, many serving ethnic communities. The retail spaces are staffed with bilingual employees who answer questions, solve claim disputes and handle enrollment.

Sherry C. Wu, a customer service team leader at the UnitedHealthcare storefront in Queens, N.Y., said the staff can bridge language barriers and help demystify the process.

"Sometimes they get a bill they don't understand, or get information from Medicare and don't understand how to apply," said Wu, whose store opened in November and now sees 3,200 walk-ins a month. "We build up an intimate relationship with them. They trust us. They believe in us to give them correct information."

But Michele Kimball, director of the AARP in Minnesota, urged caution.

"It could be very easy to be lured in by a storefront," she said. "Consumers need to understand what the full range of insurance options are."

AARP encourages seniors to compare Medicare offerings during open enrollment, even if they've been happy with their insurance plan. Kimball suggests a more "unbiased" assessment from the Senior LinkAge Line, operated by the Minnesota Board on Aging, which can help Medicare enrollees do a cost-benefit analysis to sort out various options based on individual needs and preferences.

Walsh, of HealthPartners, said she's open to seeing if consumers will view the pop-up store as an "appealing" way to get their questions answered and to purchase insurance.

"We don't have a hard-and-fast sense of how it'll work," she said. "Most people think of their health insurance as a task. But we're trying to have people thinking about health care coverage more directly linked to how you think about your health ... like eating and exercise."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335