Looking Back on HME Retail in 2018
Where is retail heading next?
by Faisal “RJ” Poonawala

Retail. Upcare. Caretail. Do any of these words sound familiar to you? If you’re interested in either moving to or adding a retail component to your company, then I certainly hope they do. If they don’t, please reach out to me.

Retail offerings in our industry are nothing new. Many of us have seen products for decades that we can offer on a retail level to our clients in trade publications such as HomeCare magazine, various industry conferences and expositions, walking through big-box stores, on our social media feeds, on traditional media such as television and radio, and now we should focus on making sure we see them in local brick-and-mortar “mom and pop” stores.

Around the second half of the previous decade, I finally entered the industry to work for my family’s retail-based durable and home medical equipment and supply company. Immediately, I became enthralled and wanted to learn everything I could. I would attend as many DME/HME conference and expo events as I could find (at the time I only knew about Medtrade) looking for new product ideas. I’d be looking for new innovative products that would disrupt my local market, or I would look for newly-designed products that would take a traditional concept and solution to a whole new level (i.e., not your grandma’s ). Unfortunately at the time, I felt that a majority of the exhibitors I’d meet at events, as well as a majority of my fellow attendees, were more focused on HCPCS codes, changes to the latest CMS requirements, how to gain more contracts with insurance companies, 9.5 percent reimbursement cuts and trying to guess and plan ahead for the potential Competitive Bidding Program.

I was way out of my element—I didn’t have a clue what anyone was talking about. I thought that the way we did business was the norm, and I was blown away by everything I saw and heard, and by everyone I spoke with or listened to. I was questioned about why we would even consider only doing non-assigned claims. I was given curious looks when I would ask a manufacturer or distributor what an item’s MSRP was, and there were times I didn’t get an answer because there wasn’t an answer. Fellow dealers wondered why I was looking for showroom displays. I almost felt like I didn’t belong and that my parents had been going about things all wrong—and for far too long.

Many of us know the story of what happened next. The Medicare Modernization Act’s idea of competitive bidding began with the Round 1 pilot program, then in 2010 the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed resulting in a massive expansion of what we know as Round 2 of the Competitive Bidding Program, then most recently we had the rural expansion of the CBP.

We’ve seen anywhere from a third to half of our industry’s small, family-owned companies either disappear or get absorbed by larger companies, we’ve seen a lot of merger and acquisition activity, we’ve seen old dogs learning new tricks (lessening dependence Medicare-based revenue), and new puppies enter the industry ready to play. A few years ago, we all were worried if our industry would even exist within a few years. Here we are friends—at the end of 2018, and I would argue this was one of the most exciting years we have seen yet—we’re growing and thriving again; we’re going to keep serving and supporting as many of our communities as we can.

Our clients have always had a need for a retail-focused supplier in their community. Just because a traditional third-party payer may not offer coverage for a type of equipment or supply, or the client may not qualify for coverage because they are deemed “too healthy,” does not mean that there is not a need for that item for someone who is at home recovering, or needing to improve their quality of life at home.

Where are we now, and where are we going?

Many of today’s shoppers have a tendency to begin their shopping on the internet. Shoppers will search (albeit usually without much knowledge of what they are looking for) and find many websites full of products, message boards where people share their experiences and recommendations, and local businesses that might offer the product they’re searching for. Sure, they can buy online and have something delivered right to their home, but in some cases, do they have the time to wait? In most cases, do they know the difference in quality between various brands or models that a local dealer and expert would know? Does the average consumer know how to assemble the doohickey into the whatchamacallit and if the device is assembled correctly, to make sure she doesn’t fall the first time she uses it?

There is no reason to believe (and I’d argue there is more reason to believe) that consumer purchasing habits will ultimately result in consumers presenting their final questions, performing final evaluations and making their final purchases at brick-and-mortar stores. I especially feel that when it comes to user experience, and especially user safety, quality of product and peace of mind, that a local source for pre- and post-purchase support—a trusted source to return to as needs advance or change through time, will be critical not only for the prolonged health of our customer base, but of our respective retail stores as well.

It is important for communities to have a store that is a trustworthy source of knowledge and offers products to serve their specific needs—needs that aren’t fulfilled by the internet, or by Medicare, or most other payer sources, by their trusted physicians or hospitals, or their local big-box store.

It is ultimately up to you and me and our teams to fulfill all these needs for our customer base. It is up to us to stay up-to-date on legislative activity, to keep up with ideas through our niche media such as HomeCare magazine, and to monitor the health and operations of our trusted manufacturers and wholesalers. At our fingertips is a supply of information and education given to us by our member service organizations and vendors on the training we should be getting for our teams.

Ultimately, we are in business for our friends, neighbors, family and our communities. They are depending on us. They trust us. They are the ones who believe in us and ultimately support us.