Value-added is crucial for

Monday, March 31, 2003

HME providers looking to build their retail sales business should find orthopedic soft goods and compression hosiery a perfect complement, manufacturers say. The garments lend themselves well to merchandising, they have a built-in repeat clientele and consumers want to buy them from professional medical salespeople.

Though these product lines represent a diverse array of items, vendors say they can be effectively grouped in snazzy displays. Additionally, custom-targeted marketing materials can generate store traffic and highly detailed packaging heightens consumer interest.

By presenting a well-rounded sales campaign, vendors believe that providers can make this market the exclusive domain of the home medical equipment industry.

“HME dealers [are poised to] become much more talented merchants and we strongly recommend they pursue that,” said David Higgins, vice president and manager of Knit-Rite’s Therafirm division, Ellerbee, NC. “We understand they are medical providers and don’t want them to lose touch with that, but the number of people coming into their venues with an over-the-counter mentality is growing significantly.”

Building an effective retail strategy means understanding the importance of packaging, point-of-purchase materials and planagrams, Higgins said. It also requires that the merchant do some homework with regards to the marketplace.

“Conduct some research on the geography of the business - study how other stores merchandise footwear and legwear products,” he said.

Another fine point of retailing, Higgins said, is recognizing that prime hosiery customers may not come into the store specifically for those products. To let these candidates get away, he said, is to concede business to the retail chains.

“If someone comes in for oxygen or a mobility item but not specifically for hosiery, they are still a hosiery customer,” Higgins said. “Their heads can be turned with the proper merchandising and point-of-sale materials. If they don’t get it from you, they’ll go somewhere else and buy it.”

To be sure, aesthetically pleasing displays and packaging go a long way in turning heads, agreed Peter Bickel, president of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Silipos,

“Packaging is critical because it creates a perception on the part of the consumer,” he said. “They want packaging that is not only graphically pleasing, but explanatory about the product.”

Establishing brand identity is another key component to a successful retail operation, Bickel said. Consumers want products that look well-made and have a professional clinical image to them.

“If they wanted a generic medical product, they would have gone to a mass retailer,” he said. “They are looking for good products and value-added service.”

Some of that value-added flavor should come from the store’s atmosphere, added Rhonda Machin, vice president of marketing for FLA Orthopedics. Creating the right environment may seem simple, but HME retailers need to pay close attention to details, she said.

“Don’t have boxes from 20 different manufacturers lying around - it looks like a hodge podge,” Machin said. “Focus on visual merchandising - use well-lit displays, good signage and point-of-purchase materials. Make it inviting for people to come and shop.”

Store ambience adds to a customer’s comfort, but so does information. Make sure customers know how the products work, she said.

“One of the best things a dealer can do is make people feel comfortable with terminology,” Machin said. “A lot of times a customer gets confused by what the doctor says about their condition. Make it less technical for them - put it in layman’s terms.”

Thorough explanation also goes a long way in selling sophisticated soft goods that typically sell for a higher price than ordinary items, added Geoff Tomlinson, spokesman for Obusforme in Toronto.

“Our merchandise sits on the shelves at stores that don’t have sales staff,” he said. “When a customer looks at a memory foam pillow for $120, they need to know why they should spend the money.”

Merchants should study the manufacturer’s packaging so that they can field whatever questions customers have, Tomlinson said. Even the same types of products have unique distinctions, he said.

“When we launch a line like insoles, there might be five therapeutic product lines,” Tomlinson said. “The retail staff needs to know the specifics for each of them. They need to know what each product does so they can explain it to the customer.”

Even in high traffic areas, retailers shouldn’t be content to let clients find them. Capturing market share is a full-time job.

“You have to run faster and jump higher to get your share of the pie,” said Larry Lardner, general manager for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Anita. “Networking with referral sources and community groups is essential.”

Advertising in the local media and generating direct mail campaigns are important, naturally. But referral sources are critical to retail success, Lardner said, because they generate valuable word of mouth.

“You’re not going to get any orders from referral sources, but they need to know the fit and feel of the garments,” he said. “And most importantly, they need to know where they can find them.”

Community groups can be a source for either potential customers or referral sources. Betty Fendrick, pressure care product manager for Jackson, Mich.-based Camp recommends two - lymphedema patient support groups and podiatry groups.

“Lymphedema groups are always looking for new products,” she said. “And though I’m not sure what supply channels podiatrists use, they might be interested in learning about compression hosiery.”

Compression hosiery and orthopedic soft goods are product lines that should generate repeat business if a retailer follows the right procedures. One tool Camp has devised to get customers coming back is a reminder card for compression hosiery. The friendly postcard has a picture of a foot with a string tied around the big toe and carries the message “Time for a new pair of Spa hosiery. It has been six months since your last fitting.”

But even clever marketing materials won’t work if a patient doesn’t use the products correctly the first time around.

“Compliance is a big deal,” Fendrick said. “There are techniques to help patients put them on. If you can get patients to wear the hosiery the right way, they’ll keep on wearing them. Then you should see these patients for the rest of their lives.” HME
Worth investigating

Orthopedic soft goods and compression hosiery vendors offered these clues to retailers who want to investigate market opportunities beyond the obvious:

Referral source: Cosmetic salons. Many skin care clients are looking to hide protruding veins. Perfect hosiery candidates.

Product: Hernia belts and briefs. This is a largely untapped market. Many put off treatment because they don’t want to have surgery, though the products are effective for post-surgical patients, too.

Client: Nursing homes. Their residents need wheelchair cushions, fracture splints and compression hosiery among other items.