Easy Does It: Tips for Expanding Into the Home Accessibility Market at Your Own Pace

So you’re thinking about expanding into the home accessibility market. It seems like a good move, since, as a mobility dealer or rehab technology supplier, you talk to consumers every day about scooter and wheelchair widths, lengths and turning radii. You know the challenges of transferring in and out of a wheelchair without causing shear, and how Parkinson’s can affect the balance a person needs to climb into and out of a bathtub safely. You may already be doing home assessments to ensure the equipment you provide fits through doorways or can climb small entryway thresholds. So you’re thinking home and environmental accessibility could be a good extension of your current business.

But you’re only thinking about it because you’re not sure what exactly is involved. How much will your initial investment be in time, dollars, training and inventory? How much retail space is all of this going to require? How are you going to attract customers?

The good news is that just as there are many possibilities for home accessibility improvements, from installing a couple of grab bars to renovating an entire house, there are different levels of commitment if you want to enter the market. Based on your customer needs and demographics, your financial and employee resources, even your showroom space, you can launch your home accessibility business — at a pace and a level that suit you.

Question 1: How Much Will This Investment Cost?

Answer: It depends on your level of involvement. U.S. Rehab, a division of The VGM Group, now offers a Certified Environmental Access Consultant (CEAC) credential (see News for more information) aimed at “professionals involved in creating accessible environments for the disabled and elderly.” U.S. Rehab President Jerry Keiderling notes, “A CEAC is concerned with all facets of independent living. Kitchen remodels or renovations are considered. People need to be able to cook and eat and clean up.”

DME businesses, however, “are probably going to be more interested in the more typical types of products like ramps, porch lifts, elevators, stairlifts, bathrooms, ECUs (electronic control units) and transportation issues as well,” Keiderling says, depending on what type of equipment the business focuses on. Of expanding into home accessibility, he says, “The rehab dealer is a more natural fit, due to the nature of disabilities they work with, but many DME dealers look at home mods and accessibility as an extension of service to an existing client base. Remember, accessibility products can be as simple as a fold-up ramp or a grab bar.”

For less complex products, the amount of time and training needed to get started can be minimal. For example, Greg Moll of Roll-A-Ramp — a West Fargo, N.D.-based manufacturer of lightweight, portable ramps that can be customized in length and size — says of his particular product line, “The education is not going to require a monetary investment. We have tools we provide to our dealers, even if they are not in the home or ramp market already. We provide the education straight from here at corporate and work with them personally. We do have tools here to help them get into the market.”

Ask home accessibility manufacturers what training and certification programs they offer to suppliers trying to enter the market. Suppliers who complete manufacturer training courses may qualify for special recognition in manufacturer literature sent to consumers, posted on vendor Web sites, etc.

Just as manufacturers want to make training accessible to suppliers — because obviously, they want those suppliers to become good customers — manufacturers also understand that most suppliers need to keep their inventory costs under control. “Most dealers, 99 percent of them, do not want to carry inventory,” Moll says. “We recommend dealers carry in their showroom a demonstration ramp. I’m not talking about a complete modular system, because most dealers have a certain number of square feet, and every square foot has to be used to generate revenue. Nobody has any extra. So we recommend a smaller demonstration ramp that people will come in and see.”

Demonstration models — in the cases of ramps, perhaps abbreviated versions — can be effective compromises for a supplier who wants to customers to see and touch the product, but doesn’t want to carry inventory. Ask your prospective manufacturers if they offer demonstration models, and what their typical order-filling times are if you plan to carry a limited inventory.

Question 2: How Much Retail Space Will This Require?

Of course, even demonstration products take up room. How much retail space will you need to devote to home accessibility products?

Answer: How much room do you have? If you have the space, set up a ramp, and pose a showroom or demo scooter or power chair atop it. If your customers regularly visit with their power mobility vehicles, let them drive up and down the ramp or onto a lift to experience its size and space to maneuver. For your bath safety products, set up a model bathtub or shower so you can display grab bars, shower and bath chairs, bathlifts and commodes. Helping customers visualize the equipment in their own homes is a key to successful selling.

But what if your retail space is very limited? Or what if you’re an RTS who doesn’t even have a retail showroom?

Ask manufacturers for planograms and displays you can use to show off and store their products. At last month’s Medtrade show, several home accessibility exhibitors, including EZ-ACCESS and Homecare by Moen, debuted space-savvy displays to help suppliers make the most of their retail areas.

Also ask for product demonstration videos or brief case studies that you can play in your retail areas, lobbies or waiting areas. Many ramp and lift manufacturers, due to the large size of their products, offer videos that demonstrate product setup and use, so suppliers don’t have to display them on their sales floors. Of course, manufacturers should also be able to supply you with product literature that can be displayed even in tight quarters.

Question 3: How Will You Attract Customers?

As a DME supplier, you have a ready-made database of current customers, both consumers and their caregivers. But you still need to spread the word that you’re now a home accessibility supplier, as well. Tell customers, referral sources, schools and clinicians what additional products and services you can provide. If you’re already doing home assessments as part of your wheelchair- or scooter-related services, consider expanding your assessments to include the overall accessibility of the home, so you can make product and safety suggestions for bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms, garages and entryways.

Ask manufacturers how they’ll help you via co-op advertising programs, both print and television. Do your vendors have dealer locators on their Web sites for consumers seeking to buy product? Do your vendors support their dealer network by exhibiting at local or national consumer shows and educational conferences?

Finally, what accessibility opportunities exist outside customer homes? Health-care facilities, local businesses and schools also need to be accessible — not just to conform to the law, but also to attract consumer dollars. See what possibilities exist by reading “You’re Surrounded!” starting on page 10.

In a time of funding cuts, the retail home and environmental accessibility market can be a great business expansion for DME suppliers… especially those who figure out what they can handle and enter at their own pace.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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