Shoppers walk outside a Sam's Club store in Peoria, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. The International Council of Shopping Centers is scheduled to release U.S. chain store sales data on Jan. 3. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Shoppers walk outside a Sam’s Club store in Peoria, Ill. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Sam’s Club announced Wednesday that it is opening a private health insurance exchange for its members, a move that is aimed at providing the small-business owners that are its core customers with a way to offer affordable insurance coverage to their employees.

The launch of the exchange is the latest effort from a major retailer to offer a service that pushes beyond the industry’s traditional business of selling goods. Sam’s Club, which is a division of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., says its private insurance marketplace is part of a broader attempt to build customer loyalty in an era when other membership programs, such as Amazon Prime, threaten to take a bite out of its business.

(Amazon Prime is a service offered by Amazon.com., the chief executive of which, Jefferey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Sam’s hopes its offering will be a popular alternative to the public insurance marketplaces that were created as part of the Affordable Care Act.  The state small-business exchanges, often called the SHOP exchanges, have so far failed to meet their enrollment goals in many states. Some critics of the health-care law have questioned whether it would encourage small businesses to drop health insurance for their employees altogether.  With its new private exchange, Sam’s Club seems to be gambling that small businesses will remain committed to providing affordable insurance for their workers.

 The exchange, known as The Aetna Marketplace for Sam’s Club, will be available in 18 states beginning this month to members, their employees and their families.  Employers can choose whether to offer a defined contribution plan or one that gives workers a flat, pre-tax contribution to apply toward a plan of their choice.

One of Sam’s Club’s chief rivals, Costco, already offers a private insurance marketplace that is geared at individual shoppers. The Sam’s Club marketplace is different in that it was designed specifically to appeal to small-business owners, although individual members could potentially sign up for it.  Sam’s says that some 70 percent of its customers who hold business memberships have five or fewer employees.

Consulting firm Accenture estimated in June that about 3 million Americans currently receive coverage through private exchanges.  The company estimates that number will swell to 40 million by 2018, and that private exchanges will ultimately have more users than the federal and state exchanges.  Some large employers, including Walgreen, Church & Dwight and IBM, have moved their massive employee populations to private exchanges from firms such as Towers Watson, Aon Hewitt and Buck Consultants.

Sam’s Club said its move to offer private exchange was based on customer research.

“While it’s no surprise that small business owners are strapped for time, our insights team really honed in on what causes this time crunch,” said Rosalind Brewer, chief executive of Sam’s Club, in a conference call with reporters.

They found that confusion over health insurance plans was a leading issue occupying small business owners’ time.  With the new exchange, they hope to provide a streamlined, simple offering.

The opening of Sam’s Club’s insurance exchange comes at a time when many other retailers are testing the waters with health and wellness-related offerings.  Wal-Mart, its sister brand, is offering consumers in-store assistance enrolling in an insurance plan.  Wal-Mart is also opening primary-care centers in some of its outposts around the country.  Still more retailers are testing other kinds of services, including Amazon.com, which is testing grocery delivery service in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Sam’s also announced Wednesday that it was launching new services for small business owners to outsource their payroll capabilities and legal needs.

Sam’s Club is under pressure to reinvigorate its appeal to small-business owners in order to boost its bottom line.  In the most recent quarter, Sam’s Club’s comparable sales, or sales at stores open more than a year, were flat overall.  However, among shoppers who hold a business membership, comparable sales were negative. Sam’s has been working to improve its merchandise assortment and make it more responsive to profiles of individual stores.

Staff Writer Jason Millman contributed to this report.