Merchandising key for wheelchair accessory market

Saturday, August 31, 2002

When it comes to selling companion products for wheelchairs, successful providers say the first rule is to let patients know the items are available to them. Therefore, merchandising plays a critical role in garnering these extra sales, they say.

Whether it be interactive ramp exhibits, dressed-out display chairs or kiosk racks, those who are serious about tapping into the potential for wheelchair accessory sales need to showcase these products in an attention-getting way.

"You need to promote and display these products in a way that jumps out at you and says 'Buy me!'" said Ray Normand, president of Houston-based Northshore Medical Supply. "Customers need to see how these products are used."

Although the public has become much more educated about healthcare products, providers can't assume that wheelchair patients are familiar with all the extra items designed for the market, he said. To enhance his customers' awareness and pique their purchasing interest, Normand has devoted a sizable portion of his 7,000 square feet of retail space to wheelchair-related products. Among the displays: a spinning carousel containing more than 40 different items, situated at wheelchair height.

"It's placed in an area where people typically test out the chair, so they can't help but see it," he said. "We place brightly colored items on it, which gets their attention. Even though the crazy colors don't usually sell that well, they attract people to the display."

For the most part, Normand says wheelchair accessory manufacturers have been very adept at providing merchandising support, though he says he'd like them to produce more photographs of people using the products.

"It's just another way for the products to be demonstrated," he said.

Jeff Kelemen, co-owner of Las Vegas-based Everything Medical, agrees that displays drive sales for wheelchair accessories.

"Ever since we put up wall displays, sales have doubled," he said. "Wheelchair accessories have been a strong growth area for us. You just have to put the products out there where people can see them."

Offering a variety of products also stimulates the buying senses, Kelemen said. Although the store only carries brands from two manufacturers, he said the wide breadth of styles and selections from those companies gives customers plenty of choices.

"These items are the closest thing we have to impulse buying in [HME]," he said. "So we have bags for every conceivable use. We have pillows of all shapes and sizes. We commit to carrying the stock."

Sales reps also need to extract information from consumers in order to find the products that best fit their needs, Kelemen said. For instance, he said that an arthritis patient shopping for a tote bag would be best served with a fastener that is easy to open.

Because there are a plethora of pouches, duffles and carrying bags available, one size definitely does not fit all and it is up to the provider to make that point to the patient, added Frank Milatta, president of Health Care Depot, Freehold, N.J.

"If you have a respiratory patient, find a bag designed to hold an oxygen unit," he said. "Likewise, get them a smaller bag if they have a cordless phone. Some hold catheters. It seems like they're designing bags for all sorts of lifestyles."

Indeed, oxygen bags are "a really popular item" among customers at Avenue Medical in Dover, Delaware. In fact, President Adam Samuel says wheelchair patients are constantly looking for accessories that aren't just useful, but fashionable as well.

"Now that chairs come in so many different colors, people are looking for accessories that are color coordinated," he said.

Pediatric clients are especially interested in decorating their chairs, and Avenue Medical accommodates them with custom design services.

"We had one youngster who loves frogs, so we put a frog design on the back of his chair along with his name," Samuel said. "Kids like having their names put on their chairs. We also have different fabrics, like a jungle landscape, which goes over well. These things make it more fun and less scary."

The importance of function shouldn't be diminished, though, he said, because another successful seller has been a portable threshold ramp.

"It's perfect for homes that aren't accessible," he said. "They can be used for any doorway, whether it be the front door or the shower door."

Anti-tip devices, which extend out from the lower frame of the chair to keep it from flipping backward while ascending a ramp, are among several accessory mainstays at Charlotte, N.C.-based Chair & Equipment Rental & Sales, said President Jim Little.

And even though they're not a particularly new item, umbrellas have gained sales momentum in recent years, Little said. Easily mounted on the chair, the umbrella can be used as shade or protection from rain and folds down out of the way when not in use. Similarly, the store offers a portable canopy that functions like an awning — perfect for outdoor activities like camping, he said.

Echoing the assertions of other HME retailers, Little said his success with wheelchair accessory sales has come through showcasing nearly every product and demonstrating how they work. The rest takes care of itself, he said.

"Our showroom is nearly 5,000 square feet and we put everything on the floor for customers to see," he said. "So if they come in to have their wheelchair repaired, they wander around while they're waiting and the next thing you know, they're at the cash register making a purchase." HME