Business Solutions

The Innovation Game

Why HME providers need to ensure that they serve up innovative, 'must-buy' products if they want to continue capturing the senior retail market.

lightbulbs

Photo © chones/depositphotos.com

Akey market segment that HME providers have served as one of their cornerstone client demographics for literally decades is seniors. That certainly makes sense given that during the better days of CMS’s DMEPOS program, most providers derived 80 percent of their revenues (or more) from Medicare beneficiaries.

And, as the industry felt the business imperative to increasingly incorporate retail sales into their revenue mix — with some providers going completely retail — seniors have been along for the retail ride. But are HME providers properly serving the senior retail market? Have they kept pace with their customers? Do they need to reconsider the types of products that they need to be offering those seniors?

CH-CH-CHANGES

For starters, seniors have seen some neglect from the HME space in the past, because they were being served with basic products for the Medicare reimbursement market. No wonder walkers, grab bars, and rollators of, say, 2010 looked so much like their predecessors from the 1990s (or earlier). There was no imperative to improve, and the seniors were taking what Medicare was giving them.

“The seniors of 20 years ago were from the Depression-era; were frugal and not focused on spending money for themselves to improve their lives,” says Craig Shugert, president and CEO of LifeWalker Mobility Products (upwalker.com). “The seniors of today are wealthier, want to stay fit by staying active and are willing to spend money on value-added products which can improve their lives and help them to live longer, healthier lives. “The surgeon general and CDC are focused on eliminating sedentary lifestyles of our senior population,” Shugert adds. “Consumer products companies should be focused on meeting this need.”

If a senior is purchasing the product directly, providers can’t be competitive if all they offer are those commodity products.

“Say, seniors are coming in because have falls in their bathroom,” suggest Troy Holland, president of Stander Inc. (stander.com). “If you walk them over to a wall-mounted grab bar, they’ll say, ‘Really? Is there really not anything more innovative or different than this?’ And that’s where you have the opportunity to really show them something innovative, like our security pole and curve grab bar that mounts anywhere in the room, in any part of the home, and puts the grab bar right in front of them, right where they need it.” Also, looks count for a lot. Seniors’ tastes in terms of product design have changed. Products that enhance their life in terms of function also need to reflect that in terms of form.

“I think seniors nowadays are looking for something that’s more sleek, that’s more of a fashion statement, or innovations that they can show their friends so that they tout their new walker, or rollator or whatever it is,” says Troy Holland, president of Stander Inc. (stander.com). “It’s not the old, two-button chrome folding walker with tennis balls that their grandma used, or that their mom or dad used. They’ve got to get away from that and they want to get away from that, right? They’re looking for innovation in every aspect of their mobility and their life.”

This means providers need to think about product innovation when trying to appeal to senior customers. They need to consider how they approach rounding out their “good, better, best” product lineups for all their retail categories. Whether it’s lift chairs, grab bars, rollators, or canes, design and product innovation must be a consideration.

MOBILITY AIDS 2.0

Bearing that in mind, let’s consider a cornerstone of senior medical equipment: walkers and rollators. HME providers need to toss the industry term “bent metal” into the wastebasket and start thinking about how they can differentiate with basic mobility aids. Both Stander’s Holland and LifeWalker’s Shugert know this fact very well, as their companies are dedicated to take these sorts of products to the next level.

UPWalker

The UPWalker is an innovative take on the rollator that lets users stand fully upright while using the device. The design confers increased stability and reduces back and wrist strain, which means users can keep walking with it for longer.

In the case of LifeWalker, one of their premier offerings is the UPWalker, an innovative take on the rollator that lets users stand fully upright while using the device, rather than leaning over it, which is usually the case when using traditional walkers and rollators. Two bars rise up on either side of the user, and attached to them are two armrests with handles and brake controls. Its development came about after Shugert watched his family face the Catch 22 of trying to stay active by using devices that he felt were didn’t fully deliver.

“My parents and grandparents were advocates of staying active as long as you can,” he recalls. “Using mobility as medicine was their mantra as well as use it or lose it! … When my 101-year-old grandmother and mother-in-law started complaining about avoiding active lifestyles because of the pain in their wrists, back and joints while using their rollators I started down the path of developing a better mousetrap called the UPWalker to replace this 40-year-old, obsolete technology.”

Interestingly, that better mousetrap owes a bit to race cars. By standing more inside the UPWalker, users are safer than trailing behind the device.

“I am an engineer by education and learned that, when center of gravity and downward forces are moved inside contact points on the ground (wheels), stability is created,” Shugert explains. “I liken the concept to race cars which push wheels outward and center of gravity inward between the wheels. We needed to apply these engineering concepts with forearm supports, which allows the user to be supported more by shoulders rather than pushing down on one’s wrists.”

This resulted in the UPWalker’s patented design which, according to Shugert, is the only U.S. company to meets the safety criteria of ISO 11199-3 for upright mobility both indoors and outdoors. And that design has delivered on Shugert’s goal of relieving the pain of using a walking aid.

“A clinical study now validated by a recent survey found our series of UPWalker products result in a more upright posture which provides more efficient processing of oxygen, allowing users to walk two to three times further (when compared to their rollator/walker/cane), experience less pain on the wrists, lower joints and back,” he says. “Rather than looking down at the ground while using a rollator use of the UPWalker allows one to look ahead at eye level with friends, improving dignity and self-esteem. It even helps to improve one’s walking gait too.”

A year ago, LifeWalker refined the original UPWalker to create the UPWalker Lite, which Shugert says “has become a main staple at brick and mortar retailers for the average senior, while the original UPWalker is a more robust product for heavy outdoor use and clinical applications.”

“We are now working on a new senior mobility fitness device which not only encourages a cardio workout by walking but provides an upper body workout for the biceps, triceps, lateral and pectoral muscles too,” he adds. “Look for this product launch in December.”

Stander has been another innovative manufacturer in the retail space, and that includes its walkers and rollators as well. Knowing that easy portability is something seniors need, the company has a patented folding technology for its EZ Fold-N-Go Walker and EZ Fold-N-Go Rollator.

EZ Fold-N-Go Walker and EZ Fold-N-Go Rollator

The EZ Fold-N-Go Walker and EZ Fold-N-Go Rollator solve a key problem with a lot of older walker and rollator designs: they’re not very transportable, even when they do fold. So Stander’s engineers designed rollators and walkers that can fold easily into a super-compact format.

“Our engineers saw one of the main challenges that people have with a walker or rollator,” Holland says. “And that is that they’re not really portable. They’re big, they’re bulky, they’re hard to get around. You can imagine grandma or grandpa trying to put their rollator in the trunk of the car and then walk to the front to get in the car. That’s a nightmare.

So Stander’s engineers saw that a need for something that can fold easily into a super-compact format was needed.

“It folds up really compact and can go in the front seat of the car with users,” Holland says. “It can go in the overhead compartment of an airplane, so they don’t have to wait at the jet bridge for checking a walker or rollator. They can just get it and go with them on their trip.

“We know that baby boomers are traveling, so why not offer them something that makes traveling much easier?” he adds. “And that’s really where our folding technology comes in is allowing them to be more free and more mobile.”

INNOVATIVE PROVIDERS

Regardless of what innovative products a provider gets in their showroom, they must innovate in terms of how they retail those items to seniors. Shugert advises leveraging the investments that their vendor partners have made in developing and advancing those products.

“Our DME/HME and brick-and-mortar partners display the product for consumers to use around the store or take a walk outside,” Shugert explains. “We spend many millions of dollars building UPWalker’s brand awareness and product benefits through TV and print advertising, driving consumers to retail stores, which is working. We are even working on cobranded commercial promotions which drive consumers to specific retailers.”

And LifeWalker’s investing in backing the product isn’t limited to advertising. The company also provides a lot of in-store messaging materials to help retailers communicate how UPWalker’s can help seniors lead active lives.

“Our retailers will display a video of the UPWalker showing aspirational outcomes of using the UPWalker outdoors,” Shugert says. “We provide a broad range of POP marketing materials from product hang tags on every product shipped, which shows the benefits of the UPWalker.

“We are even working on a health and fitness program to encourage activity,” he adds “We have posters, literature, digital assets and other marketing collaterals to help our customers achieve success. We also police to assure partners comply with minimum advertised price.”

PRIME POSITION

Of course, many providers might be thinking, “Well, what about Amazon? Innovations are great, but aren’t seniors just going to buy this stuff on Amazon?” The TLDR is no, but the longer answer — the “why” — is that, while online competition is a consideration, the HME provider has many advantages given it’s established market position.

“We launched the UPWalker direct to consumer, which resulted in success, but the number one question we received was ‘where can I go to try the UPWalker?’” Shugert recalls. This led to LifeWalker working with the HME providers who can work directly with seniors.

“Providers need to think, ‘how can I differentiate myself?’ because they have all the tools to compete,” Holland says. “They can offer same day installation. They offer customer service. They can offer warranties and repairs. They can offer all of the things that seniors look for when we purchase something from a retail location that we don’t get from purchasing something online. They have the competitive edge and they’re going to be able to be here for the long haul.”

Holland advises that providers look at their store as a retail sales center and a retail sales floor, so that they can maximize those profit dollars by selling best, better and basic options. That also means hiring the right salespeople that can help seniors make informed decisions.

“Providers need people that know how to show customers features and benefits, as well as the differences, and the advantages that they will lose if they decide to go with a less expensive, less feature rich product,” he says. “Salespeople that can also sell them on the higher quality, higher price, definitely, but also higher-margin product that the store will make more on. That’s how providers will thrive and be successful as retailers in this changing landscape. And I think that that is where every DME/HME retailer should be moving towards if they haven’t already.”

ANOTHER IMPERATIVE

Also, there’s another, more timely element to why providers need to really need to rethink the senior retail: COVID-19. Seniors need HME providers’ help now more than ever. Besides wanting to continue living independent and active lives, HME could be saving seniors’ lives.

“Aging in place, or aging at home in place, or aging in place at home — whatever you want to call it — these baby boomers are looking at long-term care facilities as a potential death sentence,” Holland explains. “We’re so used to seeing our moms, and dads, and grandmas and grandpas going in a long-term care facility, thinking ‘They’ll take care of them.’ Well, that’s not going to be the case anymore.”

So senior clients are looking for product innovations that will help them ensure that continuing to live in their homes remains a safe prospect.

“We have people that put eight of our security poles [which facilitates standing, sitting and stability] in their house,” Holland says. “They put one in every room, because it’s a grab bar right in front of them all the time, so they can stand up from anything and they never have to worry about falling. It’s that type of thing that I think is much different now.”

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of HME Business.

Comments

Add your Comment

Your Name:(optional)
Your Email:(optional)
Your Location:(optional)
Comment:
Please type the letters/numbers you see above.
HME Business Podcast