Bath safety: You have built-in customer base

Saturday, March 31, 2007

There are so many ways to think about bath safety products that the marketing/retail possibilities are virtually limitless, manufacturers say. They can not only be grouped together with other categories like mobility but also be merchandised as home furnishings, plumbing fixtures, even personal hygiene products.
While the basic portfolio includes grab bars, safety railings, toilet seats and commodes, bath benches and transfer benches, the merchant can improvise and include other items according to preference, sales experts contend. Some may choose to display full bathroom vignettes; others may want to group in aids to daily living; still others may want to cluster mobility aids, skin care products and other bath fixtures like hand-held shower heads.
There really is no "wrong" way to merchandise bath safety products, says Dave Battiston, vice president of Petersburg, Va.-based TFI Healthcare.
"There are so many products and choices in this category, it is up to the sellers how they want to market them," he said. "Basically, they should ask their customers what they want, listen to them and focus on meeting their needs."
To be sure, conducting due diligence with prospective customers dramatically improves the HME retailer's chance of cinching the sale, added Alan Rushing, director of business development for Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Columbia Medical.
"Becoming a product consultant helps drive business in this category," he said. "Home health care has a focused purpose. Collectively, we have a lot better knowledge about products and the user's issues. That can only come from being more involved in questioning customers about their issues."
Bath safety is a natural product line for independent HME companies for several reasons, manufacturers contend: They have a built-in customer base with mobility-challenged patients; they work in the patient's living environment; they have a reputation as experts in homecare issues; and they are willing to provide a high level of service. Together, these factors add up to a major advantage over big-box stores, said Brent Yamamoto, assistant marketing manager for Orange, Calif.-based Eagle Health Supplies.
While some small HME operators may be intimidated about trying to compete against the discount giants in the market, Yamamoto believes that if they concentrate on their strengths, they don't have to worry about price.
"There is too much emphasis on price at the expense of quality," he said. "There needs to be more attention paid to selling customers a product they feel confident about. Even if mass merchandisers are selling something for a better price, the customer will pay more to know that someone will help them after the sale."
Merchandising moxie
The ideal situation for merchandising bath safety items is to have an on-staff specialist devoted to managing retail displays. Though it is an additional overhead expense, the results are worth it, says Wes Hopper, national sales manager for Gardena, Calif.-based Nova Ortho-Med.
"If you don't have a person who is an expert in merchandising, get one," he advised. "It is extremely helpful to have someone who has artistic vision and design flair."
Bathroom vignettes offer an effective visual image of how products function in the home and can serve as sales boosters, Hopper said.
"Get creative in your displays to give your customers ideas," he said. "Don't just put a bath mat in front of the tub, put one in front of the sink and toilet, as well--you could end up selling three. And not enough cross-merchandising is being done. Put together a front-of-the-store display that includes mobility aids, such as rolling walkers, with bath safety products. That conveys the message that these products are all designed for a patient's physical condition."
Hopper also believes that providers need to get more involved in bath safety installation, as well.
"It's a mistake to not offer installation," he said. "That is a function of a full-service center. Otherwise, you risk customers going to a home center to buy the products and then hiring a plumber to install them."
Market outreach
The retail sales potential for bath safety is so great that North Olmsted, Ohio-based plumbing fixture manufacturer Moen is investing a great deal of time, money and resources into developing a comprehensive suite of products specifically for the homecare market. Kevin Jones, senior product and brand manager, says the company is inspired to raise the bar for the rest of the industry.
"We're a consumer products company, not a medical supplier, and we see that as an advantage," he said. "We believe we can add a lot of innovation to this industry."
To do that requires a substantial amount of outreach, meeting with consumers, medical professionals and safety experts, he said. Their goal is to develop models that are aesthetically compelling, as well as highly functional.
"We want to offer the little things that enhance decor while providing additional comfort and safety," Jones said. "Our products are not the cheapest nor do we want them to be. We want to be the best."
Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare also actively conducts public feedback projects to help steer its design direction, said Linda Maldonado, product manager of personal care products. By holding focus group sessions with occupational and physical therapists and HME providers, the company gets valuable input on how to tweak designs so that they are more appealing to consumers.
"Our demographics are changing, which means coming up with new styles, dimensions and shapes," she said. "It is a market that is constantly evolving and we have to evolve with it."