Bath Safety: Succeeding in Safety

M

ass retail chains bring many products and lower prices to small towns across America. However, they often take with them downtowns and local mom-and-pop shops. Mass retailers have applied their cloned stores and massive buying power to hardware, automotive parts, groceries and other products. Some home medical equipment (HME) is included among those products.

Mass retailers have not yet set up miniature HME stores inside their warehouses, but many stock some HME product categories. Bath safety products are some of the most popular, and a basic assortment of grab bars and commodes can be found at many mass retail stores and main chain pharmacies. Despite the potentially lower prices, HME providers should not concede the bath safety product market to mass retail and chain stores.

HME providers can use their more-intimate stores and product knowledge base to succeed in the bath safety market. Anyone who has ever sought from a mass retailer an unusual item or the solution to a problem probably realized customer service is not one of their draws. So even if the local mass retail store sells a few bath safety products, HME providers should not be intimidated and forsake a potentially profitable market.

"HME providers need to get in this market on a personal level. If a customer buys a bath safety product at a K-Mart or a Wal-Mart, they are one their own," said Derek Holloway, sales and marketing manager at Ocala, Fla.-based Winco.

Shopping for bath safety products is different from shopping for house cleaners and hardware. Most customers are patients diagnosed with a condition that makes them anxious, and many are unsure of their needs. Experienced HME providers can use their experience and a personal touch to comfort customers and to inform them about products.

HME providers also can give training and education for patients and caregivers not available at mass retail stores. Only providers can train patients and caregivers how to install or set up the products and how to use them correctly. In addition, providers can use their industry network to put patients in contact with any necessary therapists. HME providers must use customer service to beat mass retailers in bath safety.

The bath safety market is not growing exponentially, but the market grows steadily each year. Like other products, the market will grow as aging baby boomers seek products for comfort and safety, according to manufacturers. Despite little reimbursement for bath safety, baby boomers will pay cash for items to improve the lives of family members or to improve their function as caregivers.

"(Providers) are going to see a consistent flow of sales," Holloway said.

Education

The three main challenges for the disabled are bathing, positioning and transportation; unfortunately, bathing often is overlooked. Before customers can buy bath safety products, they have to know what products exist. Most bath safety product customers will have a condition that requires other products besides bath safety. They may need ambulatory aides, wheelchairs and other mobility or positioning devices. When a customer enters the store seeking a mobility or similar product, it is a good opportunity for the HME provider to inform the customer about other products and to cross-sell bath safety products.

Customers take wheelchairs and walkers with them in public, so the general public and potential customers are more familiar with those products. Bath safety products remain private in patients' homes, so potential customers may be ignorant about the possibilities offered by shower chairs, positioning commodes or grab bars.

For example, a family of a patient with cerebral policy may be aware of positioning equipment needed for a wheelchair, but they may not have thought about positioning the patient when he or she uses the bathroom or bathes. The HME provider can educate the family about the patient's needs so as to not only improve caregiving and the patient's quality of life but also to sell more products. Michael Caan, president of Columbia Medical Manufacturing, Pacific Palisades, Calif., said he had a customer purchase a toilet support, which allowed her 17 year old to finally be toilet trained.

"(HME) providers need to let people know that disabled people can get around and do stuff," said Rick Judson, president of LaSalle, Colo.-based Judson Enterprises.

In many cases, bath safety products are a less-expensive alternative to costly home modification or other potential solutions. Shower chairs, positioning commodes and grab bars may allow patients to stay at home or to stay at home without having to drastically alter their homes with expensive renovations.

"(Bath safety products) allow complete use of the bathroom without having to modify anything," Dagostino said.

Bath safety products are as attractive to caregivers as they are to the patients. Caan said demand caused Columbia to make an adult-size version of its pediatric reclining bath chair, which helps position the patient in the bathtub.

"We sell them like hotcakes," Caan said. "There is an amazing need."

For children, the reclining bath chair comes in bright colors that make it more inviting and less therapeutic. Caan said the pediatric chairs hold only the torso, so the children can move their arms and play in the tub. To aid in playing, Columbia includes a rubber duck with each pediatric chair.

"(Playing in the tub) is a positive psychological and therapeutic benefit for children," he said.

In recent years, manufacturers have tried to improve the psychological aspect of bath safety products by offering more and brighter colors. Bright colors look less dreary and institutional than the traditional gray, and the colors help customers match grab bars and other safety products to their bathroom decor. A customer will feel more comfortable with a product that blends in and matches their decorating than with one that sticks out and screams "this is a bath safety product."

Most manufacturers are improving existing products by adding color and other features rather than making major design changes, according to those contacted. For instance, Judson said Judson Enterprises made its portable shower chair lighter and easier to disassemble. New materials strengthened the chair and improved its design, and now caregivers can fold the 12-pound chair for travel or storage without any tools. The chair now can fit into a 26-inch suitcase, he said.

Rick Dagostino, owner of R.D. Equipment, West Barnstable, Mass., said R.D. Equipment makes its shower chair out of stainless steel so it will not rust. He said metal chairs of other materials rust on the inside, which weakens the chair and causes them ultimately to collapse.

Reimbursement

Reimbursement remains a challenge for bath safety products. Medicare will not reimburse for bath safety products, but Medicaid will, said Miriam Lieber, an HME industry consultant based in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Dagostino said he has unsuccessfully lobbied congressmen and First Lady Hillary Clinton.

"They have not heard," he said.

Despite the lack of liberal reimbursement for bath safety products, aggressive marketing can help HME providers succeed in the market. Product literature both at the store and at referral sources' offices will educate consumers and referral sources about the availability of products and how they can improve the lives of patients and caregivers.

Baby boomers have the reputation of being savvy shoppers who are willing to spend money. They invented the "material world," and most are more willing to spend money for convenience items than their parents. As baby boomers become their parents' caregivers, HME providers can educate them about bath safety products. Baby boomer caregivers will be aware of bath safety products not only today but also later when they reach a time of need.

Bath safety from the outside appears to be a challenging market. HME providers face competition from mass retailers without the benefit of generous reimbursement. However, HME providers can use their specialties, customer service and education, to market and sell bath safety products to an expanding market.

This article originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of HME Business.

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