Psst! Looking for that Sassybax bra that Oprah touts on her TV show? How about a nursing tank top, jewelry or a baby gift? If you're like most folks,
by Susanne Hopkins

Psst! Looking for that Sassybax bra that Oprah touts on her TV
show? How about a nursing tank top, jewelry or a baby gift?

If you're like most folks, the last place you'd look for such
items is a home medical equipment store. Sure, many HME companies
carry mastectomy items, but things for well people? Not so
much.

Which is exactly what makes the Just for Women boutique
unusual.

Part of MeritCare HealthCare Accessories in Fargo, N.D., the
boutique is charting new territory with its store, which offers not
only mastectomy fittings and compression hosiery but also clothing,
gift, candle, and baby lines of merchandise. And all of the latter
are cash and carry.

That's a big bonus in this era of competitive bidding, depressed
and declining reimbursement and snarls of red tape that HME
providers face when dealing with Medicare, Medicaid and insurance
companies. The Just for Women boutique is seeing that boon in its
bottom line — and to think all this success grew out of
complaints.

The Downside of Change

Sheila Robertsdahl, CFOM (Certified Orthotic/Mastectomy Fitter),
remembers when she first joined MeritCare. It was 1987, and
MeritCare had just taken over a family-run orthotics and
prosthetics company.

“When MeritCare came in, they brought in respiratory and
the mastectomy line,” Robertsdahl recalls. Soon, the company
offered a full line of durable medical equipment. It became
accredited and expanded to its current four locations in North
Dakota and two in Minnesota.

“In 1995, we decided to make a more private store for our
women customers,” Robertsdahl says. “We carried
mastectomy, turbans, compression and swimwear. It was very limited,
but it was very well received because women were walking into a
store, not a DME store.”

And that's the way it was for about five years. Then, things
changed.

“Our store used to be in three locations in Fargo —
orthotics and prosthetics, respiratory and mastectomy,”
Robertsdahl explained. With a goal of having everything under one
roof, MeritCare moved in 2000 to a brand new building.

Like the other DME areas, the mastectomy line had its own corner
of the store. To get there, customers walked through wheelchairs,
aids to daily living and assorted other DME.

“The women lost their privacy,” Robertsdahl says.
And soon, MeritCare was seeing a loss of business.

“When we moved into the new location, we started getting
some complaints,” Robertsdahl says, adding that customers
would say they didn't like to come to the store anymore, that
they'd prefer to just order things over the phone.

This was alarming to MeritCare, which has long prided itself on
customer service.

“We used to say ‘patients,’ but long ago we
changed it to ‘customers’,” Robertsdahl says,
noting that a lot of these customers she and the other fitters
— Alicia Myers, also a CFOM and buyer, and Jeniece Howland
— now call “friends.”

“I've grown up with some of these ladies and they've
become extended family. Some of our snowbirds still call to have
their bras shipped out,” she says

Now all of a sudden, business wasn't as brisk; the fitters
weren't seeing customers as often. So, they turned to the people
who could help them recoup the lost business — the
customers.

“We formed a focus group of our clients and had a sit-down
dinner here and we asked them, ‘What do you
want?’” Robertsdahl says.

The answer was unanimous.

“What [our customers] most wanted was their own private
area,” Robertsdahl says.

“[They said] ‘We're done [with treatment], we want
to go shopping, we want a normal store. That was the biggest issue.
Otherwise, they are in with wheelchairs and everything. You're done
with your treatments, but when you walk into a DME, you're all
clinical again.”

Taking Advice

MeritCare took the women's comments seriously. Robertsdahl and
her team began to consider not only a separate store again but one
with expanded lines.

“In order to do the expansion, we began asking what other
products [we could] bring in to help the bottom line because
insurance takes such a big chunk of it,” says Robertsdahl,
noting that they concentrated on cash-and-carry items
“because normally we wouldn't have that sale.”

The product line quickly grew beyond mastectomy products and
compression hosiery to include a diversity of merchandise.

“We brought in bathrobes, pajamas, purses. We also rent a
lot of breast pumps and we do those there. We brought in nursing
tank tops, baby gift items, baby clothes, breast-feeding pillows.
We got in dip mixes and jewelry, slippers, candles, lotions, the
pink ribbon fleece socks, medical ID bracelets and oh, the Sassybax
shapewear endorsed by Oprah,” Robertsdahl says.

In April 2007, Just for Women had its grand opening.

“We are in the same building, but now we have our own
private entrance to the women's boutique,” Robertsdahl says.
“We are totally separate from the main showroom. We have
about 1,200 to 1,400 square feet and three fitting
rooms.”

The grand opening proved successful beyond their best hopes.
“Oh, my gosh,” Robertsdahl says, reliving the day,
“we had 100 gift bags for the first 100 customers. We gave
out all those bags in two hours.”

The response was gratifying. Women liked not only the private
entrance and space but also the new merchandise.

Nearly a year later, they are still coming. “I'm seeing
customers that I used to see once a year or twice a year drop by
now just to see what's new,” says Robertsdahl, “and we
are starting to see new customers.”

She says the boutique business has grown an estimated 25 to 30
percent since adding the new lines. “You get a
post-mastectomy woman who comes in and says, ‘Oh, my
daughter's pregnant; I've got to get her in here,’”
says Robertsdahl.

“It is a definite strength,” she continues.
“We're the only place like this in a four-hour drive, the
only place in North Dakota that I know of. Other people have the
products or the mastectomy items, but not in the setting that we
do.”

But as successful as the first year has been, Robertsdahl says
the biggest challenge is changing enough to draw people back. So,
the boutique regularly features a product promotion or a
buy-one-get-one on the cash-and-carry items. In December, for
example, the store did a promotion on compression hosiery and sold
1,000 compression stockings, she says.

But there's more business out there, and Robertsdahl, who says
she and the other fitters have been re-energized by the new store,
is determined to win it. “We're going to get together another
focus group,” she says, “see if there are any other
products they are wanting. We're putting up a little suggestion
box.”

Sometimes in life and in business, it takes a detour to get you
back on the right road — that, and not being afraid to ask
for directions.

5 Top Tips

If there is one thing Sheila Robertsdahl has learned in her
20 years in the home medical equipment business, it's that customer
service counts. With that credo as her foundation, Robertsdahl,
department manager for Just for Women, has developed some other
helpful hints for building a business:

  1. Listen to your customers and to what they want, because
    they're the ones keeping the doors open.

  2. Be diversified. Carry a variety of products.

  3. Know the area that you service. For example, “what
    works here in Fargo does not work in the western part of the
    state,” says Robertsdahl.

  4. Don't be afraid to try new things, but recognize that not
    everything will succeed. If something fails, learn from it and move
    on.

  5. Advertise in the venue best suited to your area.
    “Radio is working well for us,” Robertsdahl says.
    “People don't have time to sit down and watch TV anymore or
    read a magazine.”