Diversification will determine who succeeds in this challenging environment
by Jo-Ann Tilghman

A Two-Part Series

Diversification is the new reality for what once were many niche businesses. Consider the pharmacy that at one time only filled prescriptions and sold over-the-counter medical supplies but then found it necessary to add beauty items. Slowly, through expansion, many have become mini-marts. Consider the butcher who expanded and became the local full-service grocery store and the ladies dress shop that expanded to become a department store. All of these changes were efforts to increase offerings and sales and remain a viable, relevant business and member of the community. Now it's the HME provider's turn to either change models or continue with the status quo and likely get left behind. Clearly, competitive bidding has impacted the bottom line, but adding retail inventory is a viable expansion opportunity. How the HME industry diversifies in this changing regulatory and economic environment will determine who succeeds and who fails. To paraphrase Gen. George Patton, now is the time to "lead, follow or get out of the way." However, unless your community and your customer know that you are changing and what you have to offer, why bother? While shopping in general may have become a leisure activity, this trend has not yet reached the HME outlet. Let's state an obvious fact—customers rarely come into your store just to browse and see what's new. By expanding offerings and transitioning, at least in part, to an HME "gift store" you have the opportunity to showcase items that are more likely to lead to impulse purchases. While you may never have seen yourself in the "senior" or "disabled" gift business, now is the time to rethink that position. With the number of seniors increasing every day, you are uniquely positioned to take on this growing market. Currently, the typical HME customer comes into your store to get what the doctor has prescribed, what he or she needs for recovery from an accident or to fill a short-term need until the arrival of a monthly delivery. The customer picks up the necessary items and leaves as quickly as possible. Leisurely browsing is just not part of the experience. You need to change that mindset.

  1. If you have space, host meetings for local medical support groups. When you promote meetings within the community, you become an information resource as well as a product resource.
  2. If your customer purchases a shower bench, walker or wheelchair, offer a coupon with 10 to 20 percent off an accessory, if purchased within 30 days. You want to bring them back.
  3. If you handle wheelchair repairs in-house, take a cue from your local auto dealer and offer light refreshments while the customer waits.
  4. Offer practical gift items for seniors or the disabled that are not found in traditional retail outlets, and showcase them in eye-catching displays.
  5. Schedule and market a grand reopening. Your community needs to know that you have changed.
  6. Your customer base also needs to recognize you as a valuable resource in the community. As you seek to expand and become a community resource consider the following.
    1. Become a member of your chamber of commerce and host a chamber event at your store to enable other businesses to see how you have expanded your offerings. Encourage them to act as a referral for you.
    2. Work with activity directors at local assisted living facilities to bring what's new to them. Activities directors are frequently looking for new programs; why not be one?
    3. Support local church and civic groups by sponsoring a speaker or helping them to promote a community medical expert at their event.
    4. Participate in local senior wellness fairs and healthy living expos to distribute information and showcase new gifts.
    5. Many seniors still enjoy reading the newspaper. Advertise, particularly if there is going to be a special holiday gift guide or health care section. Offer to guest-write a column.

    It would be remiss not to mention how online shopping has impacted today's shopper. Internet shopping makes it easy to compare pricing and find new products. The Web has effectively taken "let your fingers do the walking" to a whole new level. While years ago it was important to have a Yellow Pages presence, today it is equally important to have an online presence. Today's customers self-educate and often make purchasing decisions by searching online before ever entering a brick-and-mortar store. Your website can showcase a full inventory and offer an opportunity for online purchases, or it can just be a page or two indicating the type of items you carry and your store hours and location. An online presence lends credibility, indicates stability and allows an ever-increasing number of shoppers to browse where and when they want to. In addition, social media is a large part of reaching customers in this electronic age. Designate an employee to handle your Facebook, Twitter and email accounts. Electronic media is a quick and easy way to communicate with your customer base and let them know what is new and what is going on in your store.

    AddingClearly, competitive bidding has impacted the bottom line, but adding retail inventory is a viable expansion opportunity.

    Floor layout is more important now than ever, as many shoppers are conditioned by the Web or big-box stores to navigate for themselves. Floor layout needs to be logical from the customer's point of view. Look at your floor space objectively and adopt the store-within-a-store model. This will make it easier for your customer to differentiate between traditional HME and gift items. Eye-catching displays will better showcase gift items purchased for your target demographic. If you have street-front windows, be sure to dedicate at least one window to promote gift items and not just HME products. Customer service remains key as always but takes on a new meaning in the current environment. From the time your customer pulls into your parking area they are making decisions about you. If the exterior of your store says that you do not care, how are your customers to believe that you will care about them? Appearance and attitude matter, particularly to someone shopping for the first time or to someone who has come to you with a problem they wish they didn't have but need solved. We all know that people talk, so word of mouth about new, interesting and helpful items, fabulous customer service and support of local advocacy groups will help to develop the positive reputation you are seeking. Will you be an HME product leader, follow what others are doing or be left behind? The choice is yours. It requires an investment of time and money but more importantly, it requires a new way of looking at your business and the people you serve. Gen. Patton also said, "Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory." The market and customer base are there. They are yours to lose.

    This article is the second of a two-part series on HME merchandising solutions.