Soft goods show retail potential

Friday, January 23, 2015

Even if a provider is known for durable medical equipment, there is no reason why soft goods can’t be an integral part of the product mix. In fact, the soft goods category is showing strong retail promise as creative, entrepreneurial vendors seek new sales channels for their product lines.

Traditionally considered part of the orthotics and prosthetics (O&P) market, soft goods are emerging as a distinct business segment apart from O&P. And it consists of merchandise targeted for that heavyweight of all demographics—baby boomers.

“The market for soft goods is growing,” notes Barbara Mauss, sales manager for North Branch, Minn.-based Swede-O. “Key factors are the aging baby boomers and to a lesser degree, the increase in obesity. For baby boomers, their desire to remain active many times can lead to injury or just simple aches and pains that many soft good products address. Also, often associated with aging comes a variety of arthritic conditions. Obesity can have a significant effect on the body and over time the body can benefit from a variety of soft good products.”

With CMS committed to Medicare competitive bidding and continual reimbursement reductions for covered medical supplies, cash transactions are becoming a stronger attraction for HME providers looking to recoup and build their businesses. Moreover, the public has become more accepting of paying out-of-pocket for products they want, Mauss said.

“What is already developing is a mindset where individuals are paying a portion for more of their services and products,” she said. “I believe customers and their caregivers will in many cases be willing to pay out-of-pocket for the better product that provides more than the basics Medicare will pay for.”

Repositioning hosiery

Compression hosiery has long been a stalwart of the soft goods category, fitting in with other product lines like therapeutic shoes, blood pressure cuffs, incontinence garments and wound care supplies. But given its health benefits, has hosiery reached its sales potential?

Not according to Martin Winkler, MD, founder of Neb.-based Omaha Compression Dynamics, a small manufacturer of hosiery designed to reduce edema, venous insufficiencies and fluid overload. Currently the company has regional distribution in the Midwest, but Winkler believes that by linking up to HME sales channels nationwide, the product could be a strong seller while promoting hosiery’s multi-dimensional health applications.

“We are looking to support the expansion of Dr. Winkler’s business outside this area and believe connecting with regional HME suppliers would be the best place to start,” said Gary Robinson, who is heading up the company’s new marketing push.

A vascular surgeon by trade, Winkler says he has built his “bootstrap” company over the past 15 years to develop a hosiery line that fosters healing of venous leg ulcers. The knit hosiery textile has been modified so it doesn’t compress the entire surface of the skin, allowing for liquid to escape, and reducing swelling.

The hosiery line has been engineered to address various conditions, including edema, post-arteriovenous dialysis access surgery and sports injuries, such as strawberries, strains and sprains.

“The science we offer is therapeutic and safe,” Winkler said.

O&P status

Even though soft goods show the most sales potential, the O&P segment remains a valid business segment, says Wendy Miller, chief credentialing officer for the Owings Mills, Md.-based Board of Certification/Accreditation.

“The market is definitely strong, due to increases in obesity, diabetes, life expectancy, peripheral vascular disease, trauma, accidents, cancer, congenital limb deficiencies and combat injuries,” she said. “As our society continues to stress the need for young and old to be active in sports or exercise, these products can assist in healing resulting injuries and providing a better quality of life.”

The biggest opportunity for HME providers in the O&P market is to be “an expert resource for your patients in their time of need,” Miller said. “Ensure your staff is equipped with the education and experience to advise your patients on the proper fit and use of the products you sell.

“If you accomplish this, you will earn respect and repeat customers,” she said.