Home accessibility opens doors for providers

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Although it’s a natural fit for the HME industry, home accessibility is a market that providers have largely avoided in the past. Perhaps due to its rudiments being outside the traditional homecare comfort zone, home accessibility—installation of ramps, lifts, bath safety equipment and other home modifications—has not been widely offered by HME providers.

That may finally be changing, however. As Medicare has become less reliable for more providers, alternative markets such as home accessibility are suddenly gaining in appeal, product vendors say. The driving force is the baby boom generation, which represents a huge sales opportunity for entrepreneurial thinkers, says Bob Heffernan, president of Pittsburgh-based Access4U.

“Certainly the numbers are a big influencer, with 8,700 people a day turning age 65,” he said. “It’s a growing market that will get bigger as people live longer. When I started in the business eight years ago, there were national statistics that listed 2 million wheelchair users in the U.S., and now it is 2.5 million. Those numbers tell you where the market is going.”

Jim Quinly, general manager of home elevators and accessibility products for Sarasota, Fla.-based Harmar, says he started seeing more provider interest in the market at Medtrade 2012.

“They came out in droves for seminars and were asking a lot of questions about it,” he said. “Not everyone followed up on it, but those who did are doing very well with it.”

Though installing ramps, lifts and fixtures takes a different bit of expertise, no new marketing strategy is required “because the customers are already in front you,” Quinly said. “As a provider you are already talking to them—now you have to let them know that you have expanded your services.”

Tune into boomers

Because the baby boomers are the key drivers of the market, HME providers need to learn everything they can about the wants, needs, likes and dislikes of this highly influential generation, says Pat O’Brien, director of marketing for Old Forge, Pa.-based Golden Technologies.

“The boomers are college educated, they have higher salaries and better retirement packages,” she said. “Once they hit adulthood and became independent, they bought what they wanted, not just what they needed.”

Reaching this market will take knowledge of who they are and how they see themselves, O’Brien added.

“The boomers are very savvy consumers,” she said. “Internet and social media must be a part of the provider’s overall marketing strategy. Providers need to show images of the generation’s younger side living life to the fullest with the products they sell in their stores. Although we know that people well into their 80s use our products, we show people who are younger, healthier and more active, because people who need scooters, lift chairs or power chairs don’t want to be seen as having a disability.”

 Though the boomers are an important demographic, providers should not limit their marketing scope to one single group, said Dave Henderson, senior sales analyst and program manager for Algona, Wash.-based EZ-Access.

“The market does not consist of just the baby boomer population; there are many other segments that can be serviced with this equipment—children, accident victims, veterans and those affected by various progressive diseases are all potential clients in this marketplace,” he said. “Connecting with the healthcare professionals and rehab centers that deal with this market can be an excellent feeder program for your customer base.”

The contractor issue

The question of how to handle installation has been the main tripping point for HME providers, because it falls outside their traditional area of expertise. So what is the best way to handle it? Hire an expert or become an expert?

“I used to say our biggest competitor was every son-in-law in America,” Heffernan said. “Now the competitors are coming from the construction industry, who not only handle the installation, but sales of accessibility products themselves.”

While there is no “right” way to handle it, Access4U does offer training for HME providers who wish to tackle the nuts-and-bolts of installing the products. Because the company specializes in custom home modifications, Heffernan himself will often personally assist new installers to ensure they are comfortable with the job.

“It’s a better arrangement—I get to go out and explain how and why it goes together,” he said. “It is better than them coming to the factory.”

Sometimes a professional carpenter or electrician is needed for a job, and Heffernan recommends that providers conduct their due diligence on certified, reputable contractors who are familiar with local building codes.

O’Brien believes HME providers would be well served finding the right professional partners because it could give them an edge on cross-sales and referrals.

“By partnering with building contractors, independent handymen and bathroom remodeling companies, these professionals offer good advice and information to the customer whose home they are remodeling,” she said. “The contractors are educated by the providers about the types of products available that will make their homes safer and more comfortable. It becomes a win-win. And the contractors can recommend the providers to their clients because they sell the home accessibility products. It’s genius when you think about it.”