Mobility market puts premium on cash, style

Friday, December 20, 2013

In just a few short years, mobility has begun transforming itself from a largely reimbursement-dependent product category into a market that is predominantly retail. 

Due to restricted Medicare eligibility requirements and lower fee schedule amounts, the HME industry is poised to make wheelchairs and scooters into thoroughly commercial and profitable product lines, manufacturers say.

“As the reins tighten on Medicare reimbursement, scooters as a retail product become more and more a necessity for dealers as a way to sustain their business,” said Jean Wu, director of sales and marketing for Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based FreeRider Healthcare. “We need to educate customers and dealers alike that scooters are not an entitlement. Customers will need to purchase the scooter they want for cash or do without.”

The advantage of paying cash for scooters is that customers are able to select specific product features for their needs, Wu says.

“They are no longer limited to the run-of-the mill scooter that may be big and clumsy,” she said. “Instead, customers are shopping for scooters that suit their active lifestyles. They shop for scooters that are portable, durable, easy to care for and technologically advanced with all the bells and whistles.”

While he agrees that retail is now a prevalent sales method for mobility products, Lawrence de la Haba also believes that there are multiple channels for product provision, including various online options in addition to the brick-and-mortar HME shop.

“Once people begin to utilize their own funds to pay for something, it is done with a more critical eye,” said de la Haba, senior vice president of business development for Atlanta-based Graham-Field Health Products. 

This discerning consumer approach has caused manufacturers like Graham-Field to respond by creating more products that offer greater aesthetics, as well as solid functionality, de la Haba said.

“We strive to avoid the institutional look and feel of a product,” he said. “The more appealing it looks, the greater the probability that the customer will want the product.”

‘Differentiable’ value

Randi Binstock, vice president of business development for Fresno, Calif.-based Sunrise Medical, has also seen the “entitlement attitude” toward scooters and wheelchairs fading away, but she says several elements are missing for mobility to become a full-fledged retail category, such as a dramatically different product from one available through reimbursment.

“If there is no differentiable product available, what value does the consumer receive by going outside of the reimbursement system?” she said. 

Another missing element: merchandising and marketing. 

“How will consumers know what options are available to them if they are not educated?” said Binstock.

Scooters and manual wheelchairs will only fully evolve as retail products when the mobility industry begins to consider them true consumer products with the focus on the end user as a customer rather than as a reimbursed product with the focus on the payer, Binstock said.

In turn, HME providers need to listen more intently to their customers, Wu added.

“Customers are willing to pay for scooters if it fits their needs and wants,” she said. “In today’s market, customers are looking to providers as experts in the field to recommend different options currently available in the field whether it is a cash sale or not.”

Follow-up essential

Service after the sale is as important as the transaction itself, and de la Haba recommends that HME providers “take a page out of the automobile dealer’s playbook.” 

“Service has become such an integrated part of the auto owning experience that good service often determines whether or not a customer will stay with that particular brand of car,” de la Haba said. “HME dealers should treat their mobility customers the same way—they should communicate clearly that a wheelchair requires periodic maintenance and service, and that they offer a high level of service to the customer.”

By providing service after the sale, brick-and-mortar retailers have a decided advantage over their online competitors, he said.

“With the increasing number of online retailers, it is very important that they clearly communicate their value proposition by being a local provider who can take care of them after the purchase,” de la Haba said. “They will not get that kind of service from an online purchase.”