It takes a 'modicum' of retail sense to sell ambulatory aids
If any product category was tailor-made for HME retail sales, it's ambulatory aids. Besides looking attractive on a showroom floor, manufacturers say ambulatory aids are products that the public is actively seeking out as a cash-and-carry lifestyle product.
Any HME retailer with a modicum of retail smarts should be able to move items on a regular basis, especially in-demand products like rollators, said Darrin Horst, president of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Lifestyle Mobility Aids.
"I guarantee any company that hasn't focused on rollators before will make sales within 30 days," he said. "If they carry our rollators, they will have traffic."
Indeed, rollators have become a force in the ambulatory aids arena and vendors are touting them as the cornerstone of retail sales. Enhanced functionality, dazzling colors and deluxe features make rollators an attractive centerpiece of a showroom display, Horst said.
For instance, Lifestyle's Royal line of rollators feature a paint scheme called Laser Colors, a black metallic surface with splashes of red, blue, green and other bright shades. Positioned under the right lighting, they sparkle.
"Just because someone is physically challenged doesn't mean they should have a product that looks like it," he said.
The company has also revamped the rollator's design to include an open loop brake handle for hanging shopping bags and packages. Larger eight-inch wheels as well as stabilizing front casters make the new models safer and more durable, Horst said.
HME retail is a major part of Medline's strategy for ambulatory aids - so much so that the Mundelein, Ill.-based manufacturer/distributor recently unveiled its new Merchandising Solutions program. Program designer Travis Winegarner consulted some 120 HME providers to create the merchandising service, which advises retailers on how to organize a showroom and how to arrange the products in a way that piques consumer interest.
"We're making it easy for the HME provider to get into the retail business overnight," said Winegarner, product manager for ambulatory aids. "Merchandising is [integral] to cash sales and through this program we offer providers four- and eight-foot planagrams that make it easy to set up displays."
As part of the program, Medline also furnishes a "demo box" that providers can use to show prospective rollator customers how the product easily folds up and stores into a small space. Likewise, the company's lightweight transport chairs - the lightest of which runs 19 pounds - are designed for easy folding and storage in a car trunk.
"Our customers want lighter, more portable ambulatory aids and we're listening to them," said Dave Jacobs, president of Medline's durable medical equipment division.
Medline is also emblazoning its product lines with snazzy colors and fashionable styling. Canes, for example, sport contemporary offset handles and sporty patterns, such as the U.S. flag, floral and paisley designs. The company also offers retailers a cane rack in which to creatively display each model.
"The younger generation is buying these items for their parents and grandparents, so these designs are meant to appeal mainly to them," Winegarner said.
The independent advantage
As more HME providers fed up with Medicare's restrictive policies seek alternatives to third party reimbursement, they should find the retail sector a natural fit for their business, said Dave Battiston, vice president of Petersburg, Va.-based TFI Healthcare. What's more, a little ingenuity can solidify the independent HME's position as the place to go for ambulatory aids, he said.
For one thing, HME providers should see big box retailers such as Sam's Club and Home Depot as potential referral sources; likewise for supermarket-pharmacy chains, Battiston said.
"Big box stores provide a huge opportunity that independents can take advantage of," he said. "I recommend that you visit these stores, familiarize yourself with the brands they carry and then differentiate yourself by offering completely different product lines.
"Believe it or not, the big boxes are actually a help in one respect," Battiston continued. "They don't want to get too deep into healthcare products, so find the pharmacist or DME manager and ask if they would refer to you for brands and products they don't carry."
Providers would be wise to follow the same type of niche strategy that has long benefited Radio Shack - being a specialty store island in a sea of general retailers. Instead of competing with the national electronics chains head-on, Radio Shack attracts customers by carrying essentials the others don't handle. Customers who come in the store for parts and accessories also see big-ticket items like MP3 and DVD players.
"They don't compete against the big chains, they go around them," Battiston said.
HME consumerism growing
National research indicates that the "entitlement mentality" of previous generations toward medical equipment continues to fade and that an increasing number of seniors are reaching into their pockets to acquire the products they need. The National Community Pharmacists Association recently reported that ambulatory aids top the list of healthcare retail sales, with annual industry revenues expected to grow to $21 billion by 2008.
Moreover, healthcare research firm Global Industry Analysts declared home medical equipment to be "the fastest growing sector" and that budding consumerism will be "a boon for the home healthcare market."