Remodeling spurs bathroom safety sales

Thursday, October 31, 2002

When it comes to bathroom safety aids, the public is looking to the future. That is, even though many homeowners don't need assistive products right now, they are adding them to their bathroom remodeling projects because they know that day will come.

So, contractors need reliable suppliers and HME retailers are eagerly lining up to fill that void.

"We've been getting a lot of inquiries from contractors," said David Beaudette, president of McCord Sweeney Home Medical in Lowell, Mass. "I'm in a business network that passes business back and forth, so I've hooked up with a local plumber who builds accessible bathrooms."

Whether it's for new construction or remodeling, grab bar installations are becoming standard bathroom equipment, Beaudette said.

"Bathrooms in new homes are being made accessible unconditionally," he said. "Those who are remodeling are having grab bars installed because it would be more work to put them in after the reconstruction is done. They are looking ahead - saving money for the future. And because these products are more aesthetically pleasing than they used to be, they fit the remodeling scheme."

Likewise, Palm Medical in Naples, Fla., has found lucrative business in furnishing bathroom safety items to contractors.

"We're doing a lot of business for permanent installations - especially on new construction," said Purchasing Specialist Vicki Randolph. "This has been good for us because they are typically high-end items."

Although this market segment has grown substantially, Randolph believes it has a long way to go before reaching its full potential.

"A lot of people aren't aware of the availability of bath safety products yet," she said. "We're in an area that is heavily populated by retirees, so we're trying to get the word out. We're working with a lot of physical therapists and rehab specialists who have close contact with the elderly population. We're also marketing to interior designers and contractors."

Charlie Gallagher, owner of Baltimore-based Caring Health Products, added that working with a contractor serves everyone's best interests.

"It's hard for people to install these items themselves and it's good business for the contractor," he said. "He does about six or seven jobs a week for me, which adds up to more than 300 jobs a year. It's definitely worth his while."

Bathroom design consulting is a service component providers may want to add to their repertoire. Rob Jones, sales representative for Columbus (Ohio) Medical has done several consultations, though he says they are for his best customers and so far he hasn't charged for offering his expertise. Even so, the visits are an effective marketing tool, he said.

"Quite a few people have asked me to come out and give them suggestions on how to remodel their bathrooms by incorporating grab bars and elevated toilets," Jones said. "It's not a hard sell - I just inform them about what's available and they make the decision."

One product that has drawn a lot of interest among Jones' clients is the flip-down grab bar. Mounted with lag bolts to the wall between the toilet and shower, the handles can be folded down and out of the way when not in use.

Randolph reports that consumer interest in sliding transfer benches has skyrocketed in the past two years. The sliding seat gives the user greater range and mobility, resulting in "phenomenal" sales, she said.

Success of the product hasn't been lost on manufacturers, either, Randolph said.

"It is becoming a more prominent product," she said. "We're getting a wider selection of choices and more distributors are picking them up."

Conversely, Gallagher says sales of sliding transfer benches have lagged at his store because customers balk at the cost – typically over $100.

"The sliding transfer bench is a great item, but the price needs to come down," he said. "Manufacturers have to remember that our main competition is Wal Mart, K-mart and Home Depot."

Because bath safety products are largely cash-and-carry, they are tailor-made for merchandising. Besides using kiosks and revolving tree stands to display products, Columbus Medical has set up a bathroom vignette in its 5,000-square foot showroom to demonstrate how the products work.

Likewise, McCord Sweeney has working models of a hand-held showerhead, bath bench and elevated toilet. Rugs, curtains, shelving and hooks fill out the display.

"We've made it homey and comfortable," Beaudette said. "It's more than just merchandising - it gives people the chance to use products and see how they look in the bathroom."

Because Caring Health Products sells uniforms to health care professionals, the bathroom safety display is set up near the clothing racks. That way, home care nurses who come in to shop for apparel are also getting exposure to the latest products for their patients, Gallagher said.

Taking time to find the right product for a customer is also paramount in successful retailing of bath safety products, Randolph said.

"Stroke patients sometimes have limited arm range, so you have to help them select the product that will be most beneficial for that condition," she said. "That process takes patience."

Customer input is also valuable because it helps determine which products to carry, Jones said.

"Our motto is that if we have two people ask for the same product, we will research it to see if we should carry it in inventory," he said. "And we will special order just about anything a customer requests."

Indeed, the public has become more attuned to the idea of using bath safety products in the future, Beaudette contends, even if they aren't in the market just yet.

"We're in a high-traffic area, so people who walk past the store are aware of the products," he said. "It is common for someone to come in, take a look around and say 'I just want to see what I'll be needing in 10 years.'" HME