Lure in those fishing for bath safety products

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The best way for HME retailers to sell more bath safety products, manufacturers say, is to get more customers into the store. Generate more traffic, the thinking goes, and you generate more sales.

General retailers are tripping over themselves to attract the inexorably aging boomer generation and as a result, ambulatory aids, bath safety products and ADLs are getting an increasing amount of shelf space at mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Kmart. And while those stores may be capturing a certain percentage of the market, vendors argue that the HME retailer is in an optimal position to get the bulk of the business. It all comes down to giving the buying public a compelling reason to stop by.

By and large, the general retail sector handles just-the-basics bath safety products and offers little or no sales assistance to shoppers. Conversely, HME outlets specialize in assistive products, meaning they carry higher quality items and have the expertise to help consumers make the best choices to fit their needs.

“HME retailers should be handling products that can’t be found at the mass merchandisers,” said Dave Battiston, vice president of Petersburg, Va.-based TFI Healthcare. “They are specialty stores and they should emphasize that in their marketing.”

TFI’s specialty is bariatric products that are sold only through HME channels. Its bath safety line is designed for obese and tall people, so bath benches, for instance, are extra sturdy and longer-than-average to accommodate larger bodies.

Anaheim, Calif.-based Evermed also concentrates on the bariatric market, fashioning deeper and wider benches designed to be comfortable and ergonomically correct for the big-framed person. Some benches have weight capacities of 1,000 lbs., while commodes and patient lifts have a 750-lb. limit. The company also offers bariatric mattresses, cushions, power and manual wheelchairs, patient lifts, trapeze bars and beds rated up to 1000 lbs.

National sales manager Walt Yercheck advises HME retailers to spread the word throughout public and professional circuits that they are the ideal source for bariatric products.

“Advertise that you have these products and it’s especially important to tell referral sources that you have them available,” he said. “Your business will benefit.”

It is specialized products like bariatrics that help HME retailers distinguish themselves from the others, Battiston said, suggesting that stores demonstrate to customers how these products offer more support and easier access than the standard sizes offered elsewhere.

Pre-assembly is another key selling point, Battiston said, because it alleviates the aggravation of putting the bench together.

David Fravel, vice president of marketing for Carsbad, Calif.-based Apex-Carex Healthcare Products agrees that product assembly is a thorny issue in healthcare merchandising.

“Retailers don’t want a product taking up too much shelf space, but it also has to be user-friendly so that it doesn’t take an hour and three sets of tools to put together,” he said.

The Apex-Carex line of benches is designed to be easily assembled, with simple instructions detailing each step.

“The back bench snaps together easily with one motion and the same for the legs,” Fravel said. “There’s only one way for it to go in. It can be put together in 30 seconds.”

The company puts as much information on the box as possible to tell customers how the product works. Detailed instructions on the box can be the difference for bath safety shoppers – especially if they’re caregivers who want to make an educated decision about purchasing a product they won’t use themselves, he said.

Online and hard copy catalogs are also competing with HME shops for bath safety market share, noted Andrew Skroly, co-owner of Gordon Ellis, Port Orange, Fla. When looking at the demographics of those who shop from catalogs, dealers may find a new class of customer, he said.

“You can call them the ‘Land’s End’ clientele – they are an audience that prefers high-end items and doesn’t ordinarily shop at a DME store,” Skroly said. “Play up the touch-and-feel aspect. Focus on high-end selling. DMEs don’t do this enough.”

Granted, commodes don’t fit the image of a high-end product, but in the context of bath safety products, they can be positioned as having elite features far above the basic model Medicare covers, he said.

“We recently introduced two new raised toilet seats,” he said. “One has an open front with extra-wide access and back end. The other is extra soft, made of a spongy rubber polymer for people with tender skin. These are features that will sell, but the dealer may have to spend a little extra time to present them. The message we emphasize is that it takes as much time to sell a $20 seat as an $11 seat.”

Fravel noted that bath safety is also a concept - one of independence.

“It’s a series of products that work as a system,” he said. “Not only does it help people get in and out of the tub, it helps make the caregiver’s job easier, too. The merchandise should be packaged together, along with ADLs and mobility aids.”

Yercheck added that “Made in the USA” should be used as a pitch for quality, too.

“There’s a lot of bath safety products coming in from overseas that are very cheap,” he said. “These are the products being sold by the mass merchandisers.”

When it comes to store hours, HME retailers need to stay open as long as possible in order to compete with the general retailers, vendors said.

“A lot of people go shopping in the evening and dealers need to accommodate them,” Fravel said. “These are demand-based products. People buy them when they need them. You don’t need to be open 24 hours like some stores, but you should try to be open 12 hours, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.”
Category: Bath Safety
Key Products:
Bath benches, commodes, hand-held shower fixtures, bath mats, tub rails, grab bars.

Marketing strategies:

- Promote specialty items that mass merchandisers don’t carry, such as bariatric commodes and benches. Emphasize products “Made in the USA.”

- Carry products that are easy to assemble and have detailed instructions on the package.

- Take extra time to showcase the products that have special features, such as raised commodes with extra-soft seats.

- Consider expanding store hours to include evening shoppers.