Products & Technology

The Bath Safety Rethink

Meet the new face of bath safety. It's focused on fashion and retail appeal — and nowhere near the 'bent metal' days of yesterday. Best of all, with the right marketing and merchandising, it can put a shine on your bottom line.

Bath SafetyMention the words “grab bar” at a cocktail party and most people will think eau de Lysol and conjure images of a fat, industrial-looking stainless steel bar with big flanges bolted to a subway-tiled wall. “As seen in horror movie.”

That’s sooooo yesterday. Not old enough to be Steampunk, not cool enough to be modern, and much less fashionable. Who wants a stuffy nursing home façade when they can relax in a sleek, inviting and safe spa.

Welcome to the brave new world of Baby Boomer bathing. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a generation for whom image is almost as much a priority as ability. Retailers need to keep up: You’re still selling bath safety, to be sure, but now you need to sell luxury — style, convenience, and yes, extended youth — to grow your business with bath aids.

This is partly because bathing is universal. That’s a double-edged sword: everyone needs to bathe, but that means competition can be fierce. Big box, home and linen stores now routinely stock basic bath safety items and often aren’t shy about discounting.

To compete, HME retailers need to offer knowledgeable, convenient, personalized service and quality products that shed the decrepit image of aging. It’s a generational shift from utility to luxury, or at least relative style and comfort.

“The consumer today is not my father. We think, ‘We are hip, we’re into it, we don’t want an old-looking product, an industrial-looking product in my nice new bathroom,’“ says Rich Lowenstein, vice president of sales at MHI Safe-Er-Grip.

As Baby Boomers enter the bath aid generation, however reluctantly, manufacturers are starting to cater to them with products that either disappear into their surroundings or match the décor.

“Does it look institutional, or does it look like it belongs in a home? It’s going to be there for a long time. A person who starts using a bath seat at age 70, that product might be in their home for 10 or 20 years,” says Brendan McEvoy, director of product management at Compass Health.

Responding to a Multi-Faceted Market

Most of the major plumbing manufacturers — Allied Brass, Moen, Delta, Grohe, Kohler — now make grab bars that match their most popular bathroom fixture lines. Instead of a chunky bar that screams “hospital,” consumers can install a bar that is at home with the faucets, handles and showerheads (many lines have long offered matching fixed-mount and handheld showerheads). Many are offered in different finishes that go beyond stainless steel to brass, chrome, oil-rubbed bronze and other fashion looks, so remodels and even aftermarket installations can match, or at least approximate, their most popular styles to fit in.

Then there are relative newcomers like GrabAccessories (grabcessories. com) and Invisia (invisiacollection.com), that seek to hide the support features in plain sight. A basic towel rod or bath shelf becomes a stunning stealth grab bar. Stylish wall-mounted accent bars and rings are rated to 500-pound load capacity. Even toilet paper holders can be stealth stability aids.

These items appeal not only to the growing generation of active seniors, but to the sandwich generation — midlife adults taking care of their children and their parents.

“The average age of a caregiver is 52. The average age of a patient is 74, based on research,” McEvoy says. “It’s remarkable how that is moving the market.”

Adult caregivers may want bath features that keep their visiting elders safe without making youngsters and guests feel like they walked into the latest episode of “Bates Motel.”

With the changing of the generational guard, HME providers need to adjust the way they sell. That extends from stocking and promoting their businesses to the showroom environment to building relationships with customers who may be shopping for someone else now, and themselves in the near future (see “Making a Splash with Bath Aids”).

“The generation we are finishing up with now, price and buying locally meant a lot. That is gone away with the Baby Boomers,” says Jim Greatorex, vice president of VGM’s Accessible Home Improvement of America division. “I would bring in unique, high-end products that maybe have dual purposes.”

Different Strokes for Different Folks

For bath aids, the main patient groups are the aging, post-op patients and the mobility impaired, and those groups often overlap. Some are temporary conditions. Sales approaches will vary with the customer’s needs, so that’s where a salesperson needs to start.

“We need to ask the customer lots of qualifying questions. This is a means of really getting to know the customer and their diagnosis, making it much easier to present them with the different options of products that will improve their condition or increase a sense of normalcy,” says Rob Baumhover, of VGM Retail Services.

Bath aids often are an unexpected out-of-pocket expense. In an industry that has been accustomed to providing many products by prescription, bath aids are a niche that is seldom covered by insurance. Nobody is telling this customer what to buy.

That’s an opportunity for you, but it may also take a little practice if your business model has been more about filling orders than selling. It means you have to get to know the customer a little and be ready with design or invisibility, product knowledge and helpful advice.

“Boomers are more educated consumers. They are not going to see what they can get locally and be satisfied with that. They look for something that gives them warm fuzzies with the transaction,” Greatorex says. “One of the things that I would do, as a bath safety provider, is start looking for higher-end, more aesthetically pleasing bath safety lines. That’s going to grow in popularity in leaps and bounds in the next few years.”

“The Boomer generation is much more tech savvy than their parents were. They are living their lives to the fullest later in their lives,” McEvoy adds. “They also like products to keep them mobile as long as possible. They are more active and they are going to remain more active than the generation before them.”

One manifestation of Boomers’ resistance to going quietly into the night is having surgeries like hip replacements at an earlier age, which limits their abilities temporarily. Hip surgery, McEvoy notes, is one of the highest factors driving bath-related purchase behavior. Surgical patients often get pre-op education, but it may not tell them all they need to know. That’s your job.

When that patient comes in with instructions to get a transfer bench, bath seat or elevated toilet seat — the most common needs in bath safety, experts says — it’s just a start. Have they given any thought to what needs to be in easy reach where they are sitting? Do they have a handheld shower, and a holder that keeps it low enough to reach? Do they need a caddy for soap and shaving gear? Is the toilet paper easily accessible? Can they get up from the bath or toilet without help? All of these can be accessory selling points.

“I’d include knee/hip/back surgery patients to the group as potential patients, and with that look at the category more as wellness then sickness even call it ‘slip safety’ or ‘Bathe,’” Baumhover says.

Whatever you call it, bath safety is a competitive category. But growth opportunities are there, for retailers who are prepared to meet customers with selection, style and service.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of HME Business.

About the Author

Holly Wagner is a freelancer writer covering a variety of industries, including healthcare.

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