Do you want a lift with that scooter?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Because of its cash-based foundation, the vehicle and stair lift business is getting more attention from mobility providers these days, manufacturers contend.

Ignored for years despite its inherent compatibility with wheelchair and scooter sales, Medicare-fatigued HME companies are now taking a fresh look at the lift market's potential, noted Mike Krawczyk, marketing manager for Oconomowoc, Wis.-based Bruno.

"We are receiving more inquiries from dealers interested in adding vehicle lifts to their product mix, no question about that," he said. "Those who are tired of the bureaucratic reimbursement mess are gravitating toward cash-only products. It has gotten to the point where funding sources are more trouble than they are worth. Adding our products to the fold can be an insurance policy and a viable business model."

Cy Corgan, national sales director of retail mobility at Exeter, Pa.-based Pride Mobility, has seen the same trend from providers looking for diversification.

"We are definitely seeing more interest--it creates a lot of cross-selling opportunities for scooters and power chairs," he said. "Lifts are the answer to transportation and access."

Sarasota, Fla.-based Harmar is also seeing a spike in interest from mobility providers, though lifts have a long way to go before they are considered to be an industry mainstay, said Paul Johnson, vice president of sales and marketing.

"They have definitely become more popular and providers are starting to get it, but it's a big change from the traditional Medicare reimbursement model and we humans don't like change," he said. "It all comes down to the manufacturer educating providers on these products and the benefits they bring to the bottom line."

Expertise needed

Corgan commends those providers that want to diversify into the retail sector by carrying lifts and ramps, but cautions that installations "must be done correctly, properly and rationally." In response to the high volume of provider inquiries, Pride is holding 10 special programs dedicated to its Silver Star lift segment during its 27-stop cross-country seminar tour this year.

The daylong lift education program will focus on vehicle interior lift installation, with demonstrations on minivans, crossover vehicles and SUVs. After completing the program, Silver Star dealers will receive a star rating from the company based on its customer relations performance.

Bruno has three criteria for its dealers: that they travel to Wisconsin every three years for hands-on training, that they carry $1 million worth of liability insurance and that they meet annual minimum sales requirements.

Doing demos

Because lifts are a related component to scooters and wheelchairs, manufacturers recommend that providers use the sale of mobility equipment to "package sell" customers. Product demonstrations are also a necessary marketing feature, they say.

"The key to increasing sales is simply asking the question, 'Would you like a lift with that?'" Johnson said. "If you just sold a power chair or scooter, it's the perfect time to ask if the customer wants to be able to transport the product and have accessibility at home. Asking questions and advertising are both key, but to seal the deal it's important to have operational demos in your showroom. These products are unknown to most consumers, so the only way to clearly explain what these lifts can do and why they are worth the money is to demonstrate one."

While Bruno doesn't insist dealers use showroom demo stands, "those that do find it is much easier to show prospects how the equipment works," Krawczyk said. Another effective method, he said, is to have an equipped van that travels to prospective customers' homes to show the equipment in their own environment.

Providers should point out that automotive manufacturers offer some sort of reimbursement for vehicle adaption ranging from $1,000 to $1,200, Corgan said.

"Consumer financing is also a very effective tool for providers," he said. "If you can put together a payment program of $100 per month, it can make the difference between making a sale that day or the customer putting it off."

Need for bariatrics

As with other categories of home medical equipment, vehicle lifts and seating systems are being engineered to handle higher weight capacities due to the obesity epidemic. Bruno, for example, has a vehicle lift with a 350-pound capacity as opposed to 225 pounds five years ago. Stair lifts have a 400-pound capacity.

Similarly, Pride has recognized the need to bolster the weight capacity of its exterior lifts to 380 pounds.

Eric Murphy, director of marketing for Bozeman, Mont.-based Comfort Company, adds that the bariatric trend also extends to seating systems.

"It has seen substantial growth in recent years," he said. "Given the tendency for the general public to be overweight, the sheer number of people who fall within the bariatric category is increasing every year."