Retail offers a clear path to success in orthopedic softgoods
by Larry Anderson

Orthopedic softgoods are an evolving market as demand surges on multiple fronts. In addition to the traditional market, there is also growth in athletic type products for younger consumers and “weekend warriors.” The younger market may favor more color and flair, but the core Baby Boomer demographic still drives the bulk of sales. There is also a divergence in the market between complex back and knee items (reimbursable but not self-shoppable and need to be fitted) versus lower-priced retail products. “You will have guys who want to be known as a specialist and fill the niche, but the vast majority of HME will take the retail approach,” says Mike Murphy, Alex Orthopedic’s national account manager. “At the last Medtrade, retail products were the number one buzzword for everybody who came by our booth.”

Patient Friendly

Murphy sees product trends including more Velcro, less lacing up, and wrist braces and lumbar supports are going to pulley systems to allow the user to tighten them up. An example is Alex Orthopedic’s 2001 and 2002 lumbar supports. Design features are shifting to be more “patient-friendly.”

Here are several suggestions from suppliers on how HME providers can maximize their presence in the retail sector of orthopedics softgoods:
Be open to new products—Kylia Garver, Brownmed’s director of marketing, says providers should not just rely on the tried-and-true but should venture into new product offerings and be willing to take risks. “Be open to new products,” she suggests. “They could be the ticket to a new niche or revenue stream.” Barbara Mauss, sales manager of Swede-O, agrees that changing it up and adding to the product mix are ways to drive sales.

Embrace better merchandising—To sell a lot of orthopedic softgoods, providers should carry a complete selection. “You can’t sell what you don’t have,” says Murphy. Products must be retail-packaged. A wide selection helps to compete against the limited offerings typical of big-box retailers. The layout should be logical, shoppable and self-selectable, and patient education—such as small brochures about various conditions—should be offered at point-of-sale. Murphy says he sees a lot of HMEs where extra merchandise has accumulated over time to the detriment of a shopper-friendly layout. Mauss of Swede-O suggests displaying products so that they can help sell themselves in sections for arthritis, heel pain or sports injuries, to name a few.

Maintain a standard of quality—Garver stresses the importance of product quality, in spite of the price pressures in the market. Providers should evaluate products based on novelty or patents, country of origin, materials used in production and ease of use. “Me-too” products are typically lower-quality. HMEs should provide medical-grade products to compete with mass-market retailers, Garver says.

Encourage referrals and cross-selling—Murphy suggests visiting local physical therapists and/or physicians and leaving information behind to encourage referrals. He says providers should look for additional tie-in purchases related to orthopedic softgoods. “People who need cervical collars may need a pillow, or a bed wedge,” he says. “Someone with a knee brace may need a cane for mobility help.” Cross selling can even extend to pain-relief products such as TENS units.

Talk it up—“You just want to make sure you are talking about orthopedic softgoods when people come in the store,” says Brian Kletch, senior marketing manager of FLA Orthopedics, a BSN Medical brand. “They may be looking for other things, but there is an opportunity to sell them an orthopedic support. Don’t just wait for someone to walk to the orthopedic wall. Instead, understand their needs.”

No Barriers to Entry

Murphy emphasizes that HMEs don’t need a specialized fitter to sell orthopedic softgoods. Although many states require fitters for reimbursement, growth is mostly in self-selected and self-fitted retail products, which list sizing requirements on the backs of the packages and require only simple measurements, such as the circumference of a wrist.

Alex Orthopedic offers a full range of orthopedic softgood products, from cervical devices to ankle devices to everything in between. The company has also expanded into hosiery, foam and cushion products, and recently added Mountain Properties (canes) to its product mix. Alex Orthopedic has been a leader in packaging all its products for retail.

HME providers looking to enter orthopedic softgoods—or to expand their selection—have a multitude of products to choose from.
Elastic softgoods were removed from the DMEPOS fee schedule several years ago, but patient-pay items continue to gain momentum, says Garver. Many of the products treat common, yet painful, conditions. Driving growth are Baby Boomers, oriented to health and wellness, who also have discretionary income to supplement their healthcare with patient-pay items.

Brownmed offers more than 200 products to address a variety of ailments, including arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, plantar fasciitis, neuropathy and moisture protection. Garver says aging Baby Boomers and trends toward self-treatment and less invasive solutions are contributing to a greater demand for softgoods.

Suppliers can help HME providers maximize their presence in orthopedic softgoods. For example, FLA Orthopedics’ sales reps act as business consultants to help drive growth in the stores; Kletch says not all orthopedic softgood manufacturers offer the same level of sales support. Marketing to the local area is critical to success, and Kletch suggests local area print media, the Internet and an outreach through local organizations as good ways to drive sales. Providing knowledgeable salespeople and trained fitting expertise helps to differentiate HME-level service from what can be expected at big-box stores.

FLA Orthopedics offers a wide product offering, including physician-prescribed orthopedics as well as products for self-diagnosis and treatment. The products are used for conditions such as osteoarthritis, sprains and strains of lower joints, lower back pain, carpel tunnel syndrome and general joint discomfort. FLA Orthopedics’ most well-known product is probably its wrist brace, and the company recently introduced the Airflow hinged knee brace. Kletch says new technologies are allowing lighter-weight products and some that offer colors. If marketed right and positioned well in the store, orthopedic softgoods can provide HMEs a boost in cash sales and significant additional revenue, he says.

New Products

Brownmed plans to launch Intellinetix Step Sensor, a dynamic, low-profile solution for drop foot, which is caused by multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke or other condition. Unlike bulky ankle-foot orthopedics that can be uncomfortable to wear, the new product features a sensor that slips under the patient’s heal and a vibrating strap that fits securely around the patient’s knee. The lower-profile product is more discreet and dynamically cues the patient to lift the toe each time the heel strikes the ground.

In fact, product innovation is continuing throughout the orthopedic softgood realm. Another example: Disc Disease Solutions (DDS) supplies spinal decompression braces designed to achieve therapeutic relief for patients suffering from lower back and neck pain. Lumbar braces can be worn discreetly under clothing while at work. The products feature “vertical air pressure technology” and inflate vertically with air in contrast to lumbar braces that provide some form of traction via a squeezing method, similar to a corset. DDS 500 and DDS Double lumbar braces conform to the natural curvature of the spine and gently stretch the torso by anchoring down against the pelvic girdle pushing downwards and underneath the rib cage pushing upward. DDS introduced the MAX Cervical Traction Collar in 2012, designed to be ambulatory, lightweight and user-friendly, allowing patients to go on with most of their daily activities.

“Our products came about as a direct result of a need from homebound patients,” says Paul Kim, DDS general manager. “We needed to provide patients with a way to go about their daily lives without being debilitated by their neck or back pain.” DDS owns four U.S. patents, and Kim says suppliers and customers should look for braces with the DDS label to avoid lower-quality imitations. He adds, “In an industry with multiple options for each category, providers should review as many products as possible and offer those with the highest degree of efficacy and function.”

Swede-O offers its traditional ankle braces and a line of thermal supports including lumbar supports, wrist-hand, knee and others. “The challenge for Swede-O are low-cost competitive products entrenched in the marketplace,” Mauss says. “While cost is an issue, many dealers have found that offering high-end quality products helps by providing good, better and best options for clientele.”

Emphasis on Retailing

DJO Global is sharpening its focus on retail in the orthopedic sector with a goal of being the “one stop shop for all needs in bracing,” says Jeff Stoner, DJO Global’s vice president and sales. The new DJO Professional Retail Team will address the varied needs across the market in product, education, inventory rationalization and committed space. The dynamics are difficult to define across multiple segments of trade, from physicians to pharmacies to DMEs and even to sporting goods stores. DJO Global seeks to bring focus to the diversity. DJO Global supplies a range of orthopedic products, including Dr. Comfort diabetic footwear and Bell-Horn orthopedic braces and supports.

The complexity of social and professional interaction with the customer is one factor in effective retailing of bracing products, says Stoner. “At the retail store level, too many times, I have seen the store owner point to a person and declare them as the new orthopedic fitter. That person may be intelligent, caring, a great employee, but can they sacrifice their personal space and get close and upfront with the consumer/customer and show no fear?”

Stoner says that medical providers should learn to think like “real” retailers. “What perception does our store give? Is it clean? How’s the lighting? Is your merchandise displayed with thought and organization?”

Retail cost becomes a factor for the profit of the store and also for the pocketbook of the consumer, says Stoner. Looking ahead, more attention will be paid to fashion, such as sporty and sleek (low-profile) products, he adds. Materials will have to be more breathable, which adds to comfort and, most importantly, compliance. “Simplicity is another factor that weighs heavily on bracing,” Stoner says. “If we can manage the cost, you will see bracing in the future with much easier applications, adding to compliance.”

Trends in Orthopedic Shoes

“There is a misconception that therapeutic shoes are too complicated to carry within an HME business,” says Steve Wasik, Orthofeet CEO. “The fact is that medical footwear represents a huge opportunity for expanding customer purchases—everyone wears shoes.” For HME retailers who are new to shoes and the proper fitting of shoes, Orthofeet has a team of experienced territory managers throughout the country to offer assistance.

Last year, Orthofeet introduced the Naples line of outdoor sandals, which have quickly become a top seller. The line provides the deep depth, cushioned and seamless interior and multiple closures associated with well-designed orthopedic shoes in a stylish, casual shoe. The company’s Performance Collection is designed for comfort in motion, with strategically placed grooves in the sole and a fitted heel wrap to promote a natural stride. For homebound patients, Orthofeet has the Charlotte and Asheville lines of slippers, designed with Ergonomic Stride soles and featuring removable, deep depth inserts that can be replaced when necessary by custom orthotics. Founded in 1984, Orthofeet offers biomechanically engineered shoes, orthotics and socks for people who have medical conditions (diabetes, arthritis, etc.) and mobility issues.

Wasik says customers may be interested in purchasing a second pair of shoes knowing their custom or heat-molded orthotics can be easily transferred from one pair to another, thus expanding their wardrobe possibilities. “The deep, targeted experience of HME providers in answering the home medical needs of their customers is a distinct advantage over big-box stores and large pharmacies that have to cater to a much wider audience.”

Amfit offers technology and opportunity to allow retailers to provide custom orthotics and custom foot beds for patients and customers. “Our expertise is focused on a product that is absolutely custom for the wearer,” says Trudi Traister, international account manager, Amfit. “We’ve found growth in awareness and understanding of the importance of proper diabetic foot care has created a more educated market.”

“Offering a high level of customer service is the time-tested method for building loyalty,” says Traister. “Find out what your customers are shopping for and if they are able to find it readily. Are they turning to the Internet? If so, why? Does it make sense to offer local delivery?” Big-box stores and retail pharmacies don’t have adequate staffing and may not be educated about what products offer, she says. “Customers have a desire for human interaction as part of their transaction. Can you fill that gap?”

Education about proper foot care has raised awareness of the potential of damage to sensitive feet. Common house slippers do not provide adequate support or protection, says Traister. However, a custom foot bed/foot orthotic worn with supportive slippers can be a good compromise between sheer comfort and protection. “Shoe companies are constantly working to offer more aesthetically pleasing styles which definitely helps the cause,” says Traister.

The Human Element

As the orthopedic market evolves, manufacturers, distributors and care providers frequently put themselves in patients’ shoes, asking how they would feel and what solutions they would need, says Garver of Brownmed. “These are positive changes that will help improve quality of life for all,” she adds. Innovation and quality products will continue to keep the market healthy. For HMEs looking to compete against big-box stores, the human element matters, too. HMEs  should have friendly and knowledgeable staff who take time to listen to customers and help them find goods to meet their needs, says Garver.

Ortho Online

Alex Orthopedic



Disc Disease Solutions

Dr. Comfort

FLA Orthopedics