Infection control products like masks, gloves and sanitizing cleaners didn’t used to be a huge selling factor for most home medical equipment providers—until about a year ago. When the coronavirus pandemic began, such items became high-demand, and stocking them provided an opportunity to connect with the local community and bring customers into their stores (or at least to the curb for pickup). HomeCare talked with Sydel Howell, owner and chief operating officer of San Diego Homecare Supplies, about her company’s wins and losses during COVID-19—especially when it came to selling infection control products.
HOMECARE: You had some success selling infection control products during COVID-19, right?
SYDEL HOWELL: We beat Amazon! In the beginning, prices were out of control and I actually almost didn’t get any because I felt so bad having to charge people that much. Pre-pandemic, a box of 100 surgical masks was like $6 or $7, and when we first started to get inventory, it was more like $60 or $70.
HC: Were people willing to pay that much for masks?
HOWELL: Absolutely. And we got it in stock before Amazon or Walmart and our phones were ringing off the hook.
HC: How did you get inventory?
HOWELL: I actually ended up with a double order because one of my vendors who I usually buy from was not coming through. This other guy called me and said, “I have them in my car, do you want to see them?” Now, normally, I’d say no way, because I don’t do business with people like that. There was so much shady stuff going on; it was like the Wild West.
We’re a family business and we’ve been around for three decades—I’m not just here to make a buck. I’d rather sell nothing than sell something that’s shady. But this guy seemed trustworthy and he drove from Los Angeles with his inventory in his car, and sure enough, they were amazing, really good quality, great packaging. I ended up with 1,400 boxes of 100 facemasks that I needed to sell for at least $60 to $70 to make my margin. Talk about scary! I asked my mom what I should do; she is fearless. She emigrated here from Ecuador at 13 and they had to build out of nothing. She still owns the business so I had to check with her—and she said to buy them. So, I spent tens of thousands of dollars on a product that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to sell.
HC: Wow, that sounds stressful!
HOWELL: I realized that I love the predictability of selling socks and bras and wheelchairs. There’s a reason I didn’t go to work on Wall Street after business school. But during that time, you had to be prepared to take a risk.
For example, early on, there was no sanitizer anywhere; the breweries were just starting to make sanitizer. One of the guys in the Independent Medical Retailers group said, “I found this company in Tennessee that makes fog for Halloween and they’re selling sanitizer. It comes in a 50-pound drum and you have to put it in little bottles and here’s the peppermint oil you have to add to it because it smells so bad.” And people were lining up at his shop to get it. So I bought a drum. And then it was a matter of finding the bottles, and then I couldn’t find the lids. I felt like I was one day late to the party and everyone had already eaten the food and done the pinata, and I was like “I’m here!” I still have 46 gallons of the stuff. Sometimes you take a risk and you don’t win. With the masks, there came a time when they were available at Home Depot and in Target and in weird places that don’t sell masks—and then it was over. We knew that would happen. But I was able to sell enough to cover our investment, and probably the last six cases or so, I sold at cost or at a small loss.
HC: But were there other benefits?
HOWELL: We were serving our public and everyone was super grateful. We had new people calling and coming by just because we had something they really needed. If you quantify it over the lifetime of a new customer, that was totally worth it. Because those people were like, “I didn’t know this store was here, my mom just came from the hospital.” And this is at a time when our store wasn’t physically open, people would call and we would come out to the curb … In those days of April and May, it felt so good to hand somebody something they were so desperate to get.
HC: What do feel the experience taught you?
DOTSON: I need to have more of a presence online. During that time, our phones were ringing off the hook, and that pushed me to do more with my website than I had in the past. I probably lost some sales to Amazon—but then again, some people also called me and said they ordered from Amazon and it was’nt coming, and I could say “I have that in stock!” I had just had my website done in January of 2020. I was able to get in there and create a page on COVID supplies and update it daily. What’s in stock, price changes—people could go online or, if they called us, I could tell them, “Check the website, we update it daily.” We also started using a texting system. I bought the word “masks,” and the number 484848 so we would tell people, if you want to know when we have masks, just test “masks” to 484848. And then we could send a text blast to everybody who had signed up.
HC: Is that something you’ll keep using going forward?
HOWELL: I don’t know. Maybe if they’ve given us permission. But we’re a family business and we treat everybody like family—and I wouldn’t want someone texting me. We actually find that sending letters is much more effective because we’ve tried the calling and the emailing, but actually sending someone a good old-fashioned letter works really well. Sure, you’ve got to buy a stamp, but if someone sends you a coupon in the mail, you put it on your kitchen counter and you see it every day. It works like a charm. We send letters (rather than postcards) to protect HIPAA information, and inside the letter we’ll include a coupon or a new product that we have.
Every January I download all the data from people who got stuff from us the previous year and put that in a spreadsheet for when they need to get a letter; it takes me a couple of hours and I use that to prepopulate a letter. It might say, “Hey, you got your stockings on this date, can you believe it’s been so long? They should be replaced every six months, and we’ll need a new prescription or maybe depending on insurance a new authorization.” New technology is great, but the old stuff is very effective. I think people sometimes have this bias that the old-fashioned way of doing things is not as good, but for us and what we’re doing, it’s more effective … We do letters every October for our breast cancer ladies and I have people coming back three years later with that letter. They’ll say, “Oh, I was really busy, my daughter got married and we moved,” but they kept that letter. The good old-fashioned person-to-person works.
HC: Will you do anything differently in terms of what you carry after the pandemic ends?
HOWELL: We’ve always been a store that has a lot of different things on hand. But we sold a lot of PPE last year and we’re still selling it. And we never ran out of gloves, thank goodness—that is something we always sold cases and cases of because we began as an incontinence supply company, so I got to be the hero for gloves...
In general, it’s like a constantly moving target, you just have to stay one step ahead—you can’t predict the future, but you can try to figure out what might be next.