Women's Health Update
- By Craig Firl, Ben Vincent
- Apr 01, 1999
Marketing post-mastectomy products is a delicate task. Customers are often sensitive, self-conscious or embarrassed, and many are unaware of what products they need or what products are available.
According to the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, and more than 175,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease this year. For many women diagnosed with breast cancer, a mastectomy is the most viable treatment option. Single- or double-breast removal often leaves women feeling scared and self-conscious.
"Women's buying habits are different, and you cannot look at the way women buy clothes and think they are going to buy a breast prostheses in the same way because they just do not," said Vicki D. Jones, owner of a Cypress, Texas-based Women's Health Boutique franchise in Longview, Texas. "The way large-sized women shop for clothes is going to be comparable to the way a woman will buy and shop for breast prostheses. There is some sensitivity and a little embarrassment brought into it."
There are many products available, such as prostheses, bras and clothing, to help give women a natural look after surgery. Unfortunately, many women do not know what is available and where to buy products.
"Women have gone without products for so long that they do not even know to ask or to look at an advertisement, read what it is and think: 'Gee, I could use that,'" Jones said. "A lot of times they do not even realize that they have a need."
Education is a key component of marketing post-mastectomy products. Since many women are not aware what products are available, home medical equipment (HME) providers must inform the market that products exist and their store is the best place to buy those products. Jones said it is often difficult for HME providers to market to women because of the emotion involved and their special needs. However, boutique-style providers have discovered that marketing to customers and referral sources and providing flawless customer service gets and retains customers.
Some providers use paid advertising - print or television - but most find word of mouth is the best advertising.
"We get nothing from advertising, very little," said Louise Benanto, owner of Perfect Fit Inc. in Fairfield, Conn. "It is a waste of time for the amount of money it costs to advertise."
Brenda Mitchell, owner of Silhouette's For Women, Dayton, Ohio, said she advertising in community newspapers "because I have to," but it has not been very successful.
"I have done a little bit of everything over the years," she said.
However, Jones said her weekly advertisement in the newspaper helps educate women and market her business. She said the key is consistent advertising, and every Tuesday she runs an advertisement in which she answers common questions about breast cancer.
"People know they can open up the newspaper on that given day and that they are going to be educated," she said.
John Hubner, operations manager of ButterFly Image in Walton, N.Y., said his store uses radio and newspaper advertisements to market the store and its products.
"(Buying post-mastectomy products) is not an impulse buy. Our objective in advertising is to keep our name out there and to let people know that we are here," he said.
Even if a woman does not need a post-mastectomy product today, advertising keeps the store name in the customer's mind and ensures she knows where to go when she or her friends or loved ones need products.
Although providers disagree on success of paid advertising, all providers interviewed agreed that word of mouth is the best means to market their businesses.
"It is such a personal service that we offer here," Mitchell said. " I think it is more word of mouth or referral from a physician's staff."
Providers must establish a rapport with customers and make them feel comfortable while they shop and are fitted, Benanto said. If providers do that, customers will refer their friends and family.
Providers can make customers comfortable by creating a pleasant environment in which they can examine and try on products. Attractive stores and displays and personal service make the difference between a positive or negative experience.
"You can set the expectation through your advertising and through marketing, but when a customer walks through the door of your boutique, you must exceed that expectation," Jones said. "We do a little bit of everything (in terms of advertising), but the most important thing that we do is that we live what we do. We create an incredible ambiance in a boutique for the women to come into."
Mitchell said her large store has bedroom-size fitting rooms to accommodate the patient plus several members of the patients' family or her friends, who may be with her for support. Her store also has a special waiting area for husbands if they do not want to be in the fitting room. Mitchell said she strives to give her store a "salon" feel.
The store must do its part to make the women feel comfortable, but employees are the cornerstone of a woman's positive experience.
"Word of mouth is the biggest builder of any business. It is not done through displays but how you handle the clients," Hubner said. "(Our) store area is attractive. It is secluded and quiet; but, the key to it is (owner) Carol Ann and how she handles the clients."
Developing a relationship with customers gives providers an excellent opportunity to cross sell different products. Providers and their employees should educate their customers about other products available to make them more comfortable.
"We educate. We do not look at it as trying to sell them another product," Jones said. "We educate them on other things that are available so they can make good decisions about what they need and what they want. If she does not know what we have, she will never know what she may need."
In addition to word of mouth between customers, providers must develop a rapport with referral sources and market their businesses and products to physicians and their staffs. It is important for providers to provide physicians' staffs with brochures and other material about their products so providers will have keen awareness of their business. For example, Jones gives referral sources customized prescription pads and sticky notes to remind them of her store. It is important to include the entire staff in the marketing effort not just the physicians and nurses.
Jones personally delivers special gifts to physicians' offices for holidays and special occasions, such as physicians' day and nurses' week. She has given them personalized stress balls and candy jars, which she customized using a paint pen.
"You can walk into any doctor's office (in town) and see my little squeeze ball on his desk," Jones said. "They do not want things with Women's Health Boutique's name on it. They want things with their name on it."
Other opportunities to develop referral sources and increase visibility are health fairs and meetings. Mitchell said she rents a booth at nurses' symposia to introduce her store and meet nurses.
"That is a very direct, one-on-one way to promote your business," Mitchell said.
Other ways include sponsoring local societies and speaking to groups. Mitchell said she volunteers with the local American Cancer Society chapter and speaks to them and other community groups. She provides tote bags that hold the informational pamphlets that the area breast cancer support group provides to newly diagnosed patients. Jones said she has chaired committees of local chapters, and she and her employees are involved in the community.
"You have to be where people are, and you have to continually be in front of your market," she said.
The Internet is another medium in which some providers are marketing mastectomy products. Like advertising, the results are mixed. Hubner said ButterFly Image owner Carol Ann Hubner began a web site as an informational resource. It evolved into a mail order business which now comprises approximately 40 percent of the store's business, he said.
"When a person gets a hold of you on the Internet, it is like them walking into your store," Hubner said. "The Internet can make you or break you. If you develop a bad reputation on the Internet, no matter how many hits you get, people are not going to come to you for questions or products."
Although they have web sites, Mitchell and Jones both said they have sold few products on-line, but Jones said web pages are an important educational tool for women.
Selling women's health products is not always easy, but through educational marketing and customer service boutique-style stores can develop and to keep customers.
This article originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of HME Business.