Ambulatory aids require two-fold marketing plan

Saturday, July 31, 2004

HME providers who want to cultivate their ambulatory aids business - comprising walkers, canes and crutches – need to adopt a two-tiered program for optimum results, vendors advise.

First, they recommend devising a referral source marketing campaign geared toward physical and occupational therapists; then follow it with a retail sales methodology for end-users.

To be sure, ambulatory aids is a competitive market from both angles. PTs and OTs are the bread-and-butter referral sources, but they are often under severe time constraints and don’t have the luxury to meet with everyone who comes calling.

“Therapists are so busy with patient care, about the only time you can see them is during their lunch hour,” said John Lescher, product manager for personal care products at Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare. “This is a beneficial opportunity, however, because you can get their full attention.”

The assertive provider who manages to get the therapist’s ear may only have one shot, so the presentation needs to be as concise and constructive as possible, said Doug Francis, executive vice president for Port Washington, N.Y.-based Drive Medical.

“Show them that you are more than just another supplier – that you are a source of valuable information,” he said. “Don’t just give them talk. They always hear that a company will take care of their patients. Position yourself as a resource for what’s new and exciting in the world of medical equipment. Demonstrate how you will educate them and help them find better ways to improve outcomes.”

New products are constantly being developed and introduced and providers need to stay on top of all the new lines coming out. One of the best ways to do that is through the Internet and by making the rounds at trade shows, said Eli Razon, president of Maple Glen, Pa.-based Easy Walking.

“It’s as easy as going to [the search engine] Google,” he said. “And attend abilities expos aimed at end-users. You should get some good ideas.”

Manufacturers should be readily available to help their providers with PT and OT in-services, added Tom Tucker vice president of sales for DME and respiratory for Mundelein, Ill.-based Medline Industries. With their years of experience showcasing products for medical professionals, Tucker says therapists tend to be sharply focused on walkers, canes and crutches, along with bathroom safety products and aids to daily living.

“They love to be educated about new technology,” he said. “They’re always looking for quality products and have strong opinions about patient-friendly features. They look for specific options, such as ease of folding and transport for walkers, product durability and wheel and leg extensions.”

Furnishing products to referral sources for patient training can be an effective way to instill brand preference with both the therapist and end-user, Lescher added.

“The product promoted through the referral is the product the customer usually wants to take home,” he said.

Under the right circumstances, some therapists can even become surrogate customers, recommending product ensembles to end-users, Tucker said.

“Inservices can become merchandising sessions,” he said. “Show them product accessories and how different combinations can work for the patient. Get them to consider how ADLs and bathroom safety products fit into the picture. They’ll plant a seed with the customer for you.”

Getting that seed to sprout is the other critical part of ambulatory aids marketing, sources say. Augmenting the referral means going beyond just delivering the recommended product – it means piquing the patient’s interest in other items as well.

“The challenge is getting them into the store,” Francis acknowledged. “People don’t want to admit they’re sick. No one wakes up and says ‘I want to go walker shopping today.’”

Providing printed materials to both referral sources and patients is a good start, sources say.

“Take a page from the drug companies and give referral sources scrip pads with product pictorials they can circle for the patient,” Tucker said. “And if you’re delivering to the patient’s home, definitely have a product list available to show them other things they will need. It’s a great merchandising opportunity.”

Rollators have become a popular ambulatory aid and providers should use every tool at their disposal to inform patients about their availability. Trying them is the key to buying them, manufacturers say, and the underutilized advanced beneficiary notice may be the motivation some patients need to make a purchase, Lescher said.

“Use the ABN to upgrade someone from a wheeled walker to a rollator,” he said. “It’s money in your pocket.”

Given its favorable demographics, ambulatory aid retailing has the potential to grow exponentially with the aging baby boomers, manufacturers say, and the “sleeper” product of that group is canes, said Gerry Vineberg, president of Sumas, Wash.-based Mountain Properties.

“Canes are often overlooked – not just by patients, but by manufacturers, distributors and providers as well,” he said. “But canes show enormous promise as a cash sale product.”

Vineberg contends that the days of “cheap and ugly” canes are well in the past. Advances in materials technology and design should inspire providers to make them a high-profile part of their retailing strategy, he said.

“Today’s canes are much better,” he said. “Take handles, for instance. They are anatomically correct for both right-handed and left-handed people. They offer more comfort and stability.”

Technology hasn’t just improved product performance, either, Vineberg said. It has also enabled manufacturers to transfer fashionable graphics onto the aluminum frame. Among the designs Mountain Properties offers are floral prints, celestial patterns, a casino print and even Norman Rockwell art.

“Canes are more functional and fashionable, which means the patient is more likely to use it,” Vineberg said. “Compliance is what it’s all about.” HME
Category: Walkers, canes and crutches

Key Referral Sources:
Physical therapists, occupational therapists, discharge planners, social workers, product end-users.

Marketing to Referral Sources:

- Avoid platitudes when making your presentation. Demonstrate how your company is the go-to source for product information and outcomes improvement.

- Recruit vendors for regular inservice training. Show how ancillary products like bathroom safety and ADLs offer the patient a comprehensive mobility package.

- Furnish products to referral sources for patient training at the facility. Patients usually want to take home the same product they use during rehab.

Sales and Merchandising to End-Users:

- Encourage patients to visit your store for ancillary mobility products. Leave behind product catalogs and brochures with your company’s logo and address.

- Consider the advanced beneficiary notice as a tool to help boost sales, such as for walker-to-rollator upgrades.

- Take a fresh look at cane sale opportunities. The days of “cheap and ugly” are long gone, replaced by ergonomic, fashionable models.