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For many grocery stores and pharmacies offering the flu shot is just a way to get you in the door

This is the second year Publix grocery stores are offering this flu shot incentive.  Alexandra Olgin for Marketplace

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Before getting the flu vaccine this year, I did some research. At a nearby CVS and Walgreens I could get a discount of $5 or $10 if I spent a certain amount. At local grocery store chain Harris Teeter I could save some money on gas. Since the Affordable Care Act  requires insurers to cover the full cost of the shot, any incentive I got would save me money on some necessities. 

I ended up going to a Publix store in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the company advertised a $10 dollar gift card for the shot. I filled out some information, and moved my left sleeve so pharmacist Justin Taylor could give me the vaccine. Publix wouldn’t tell me how much of an increase it has seen in customers coming in for shots since it started offering the promotion.

But Taylor said at this location, he’s seen a steady flow of patients.   

“We’ve been super busy this year, especially with the flu shot promotion we’re doing,” he said. “It’s kind of a nice way to get foot in the door with people so we can kind of get other immunizations, identify gaps in care for people.”

Nursing student Lexine Merrill came into this store to get the flu shot after driving by a billboard advertising the deal.  

“I saw that and I was like ‘I need to get it done,’” she said. “So came in here.” She tells me she also plans to do a little grocery shopping and I ask if she normally goes grocery shopping here.

“Every once in a while I do,” she said. “But not very much.”

The theory is a flu shot promotion could help change that. That’s according to Burt Flickinger III, a retail analyst with the Strategic Resource Group. He said beyond the money she’ll spend on groceries that day, stores are betting people like her will start to get medicines there.

“Prescription loyalty is the greatest loyalty in all of retail,” he said. Flickinger said shoppers who get the flu shot tend to be health conscious, more likely to fill prescriptions and buy over the counter medications. He adds gaining these customers could help grocery stores cut into the big retail pharmacy market.  

“This is the perfect opportunity for the food and drug combo retailers to competitively capitalize,” Flickinger said.

And for their part, the pharmacy chains look at the flu shot as a gateway to becoming primary care centers, the places where people come for minor illnesses like an ear infections or colds.  

“They’re trying to beef up those services and one easy way to get someone into the primary care clinic is with a flu shot,” said Robert Field, a professor of health management and policy at Drexel University.

Field said these companies are trying to get into both delivering health care and offering insurance to cover it. He points to the recently approved merger between insurer Aetna and retail pharmacy giant CVS.

“Some stores are looking to add other immunizations, pneumonia for instance, shingles,” Field said. “Those are particularly important for Medicare age patients who are likely to be big consumers of pharmaceutical products.”

In its annual report CVS said retail pharmacists are shifting from primarily filling prescriptions to providing services including vaccinations and patient counseling. And Field said offering things like flu shots can be cheaper for the big company than for the small doctor’s office. 

“Well there’s some economies of scale,” Field said. “They can buy the vaccines in bulk. They can store them in bulk. And they’ve got a large distribution network built in.”

The Centers for Disease Control estimates each year the flu costs about $4.6 billion in direct medical expenses. That includes the cost of hospitalizations for people who get sick, and doctors’ visits.

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