There’s a new retail game in town.
Well, not exactly new—most of this group has been in business for a while. But the Independent Medical Retailers (IMR) are looking to shake up how the retail game is played when it comes to durable medical equipment (DME) and home medical equipment (HME).
They’re also focused on supporting one another through the good times and bad—and on amplifying retail’s voice within the industry.
“While we’re grateful for industry events like Medtrade and VGM Heartland and advocacy groups like VGM and AAHomecare, the focus in those organizations is still strongly on traditional billing DMEs,” said Alex Anderson, general manager of Oswald’s Pharmacy and president of the IMR. “As traditional billing DME makes up most of the industry, it’s understandable there’s not yet a robust support network for retailers. We’re hoping as the retail sector grows in DME, our group can help the aforementioned organizations with their retail programs.”
The members considered going other directions as well—perhaps becoming a purchasing group or an organization in which members pay dues—but decided those weren’t priorities right now. Instead, they’re focused on learning from each other.
“After every meeting or phone call, we all walk away with something new to implement at our store,” Anderson said. “It’s really exciting.”
Building the Group
Before the group formed, Anderson had already established a habit of chatting frequently about vendors, marketing and operations with Tim Rutti, president of Valley Medical Supplies and Greg McGough, director of retail operations for Medical Xpress. They realized they could benefit by widening their scope—so they added Kevin Brown, owner of All Star Medical; Sydel Howell, COO of San Diego Homecare Supplies; and Travis Elley, owner of Access Medical Equipment Co. to the conversation.
The six gathered at Valley Medical Supplies in September 2019 for their first meeting and agreed to put all their cards on the table.
“We went through everything about my business,” Rutti said. “The other side of it was spending a day working together as a group and sharing ideas.”
The original plan was to rotate around to the other stores, but COVID-19 has put a hold on that for the time being. So far, the group has met in person three times. They hold regular phone calls and chat via group text.
McGough, who hosted the group at his Texas-based locations in December 2019, called the experience, “seeing the man behind the curtain.”
“It was rough. This is my baby that I’ve cultivated for nine years,” McGough said. But he said he’s learned humility from the feedback on his business, a sentiment the other members echoed.
Although they share a dedication to retailing HME to customers, each member of the group brings something different to the table, and have found that there’s a benefit to sharing their experiences—despite the pain involved.
“We’re all like-minded business owners who are trying to serve our communities and outperform the internet,” said Howell. “I love the idea of pooling our knowledge base. We each come to the group with something different,” in her case experience in compression, which she has shared with the group.
Meeting Current Challenges
The IMR met in person at Medtrade Spring in Las Vegas, Nevada, just before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country. But a different crisis emerged first: Kevin Brown had to return home to Nashville before the show even started to handle the devastation caused by a tornado that swept through Davidson County, Tennessee. Although All Star Medical reopened in May, he’s still dealing with insurance and re-opening and re-supplying the showroom.
“It’s just so hard to get supplies,” said Brown. “We can’t get anything, but the group has been so helpful pointing me to vendors. It’s been such a challenge. They’ve been super helpful.”
As for the rest of the group—well, they have a global pandemic hanging over their heads. So how does a retail HME provider handle a public health emergency? With personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer and plenty of social distance.
In Fort Worth, McGough is offering a menu of PPE for customers. He stocked up early after getting a tip, and advised others in the group to do the same.
“It took us about three weeks to get it down to a science,” he said. “Then we made a menu. It has pictures and the prices. Customers would tell us what they needed. We would take it to them and then to the register.”
For Anderson, responding to the coronavirus meant scaling up his online shopping experience for customers. By April, they launched a new version of their online shop, offering curbside or local delivery for those self-quarantining.
“We had it beforehand, but didn’t promote or use it outside of the occasional sale,” he said. “We went from an average of five sales a month to over 471 in the month of May.” Anderson’s team became personal shoppers for customers who didn’t feel comfortable entering the store, walking the aisles with a portable phone in hand and selecting the right items (mostly PPE) for people, he said.
In California, Howell closed San Diego Homecare Supplies to the public a week before the state locked down. Her store started stocking protective masks in February, but supplies were quickly depleted; they ran out five minutes after restocking.
“We started scrambling,” she said. “You don’t want to get something from just anyone. We aren’t an internet company trying to make a buck. That’s when I leaned on the guys. We kept our facility open and had curbside delivery.”
The shop reopened after Memorial Day weekend, taking temperatures and requiring masks and the use of hand sanitizer, in accordance with local ordinances. And she found that there’s actually been a silver lining in the pandemic.
“We’ve gained a few new customers because they didn’t know we were here and they needed hand sanitizer. I (was) allowing them to buy as much as they want when the big box stores were limiting them to one bottle. We’re trying to keep the economy going. Our market isn’t so much people who are sick but businesses trying to reopen,” Howell said.
Rutti, whose location is in Arizona, unfortunately experienced the opposite. He had to contend with business slowing down after an initial rush of demand for PPE and other products.
“As a business owner, I had to make some really hard decisions with reducing staff, reducing hours for remaining staff and operation, covering equipment in stores, cleaning daily, and fear of staff, customers, and myself becoming exposed to the virus, etc.” he said. “We had to do curbside pickup, and we added delivery for our seniors. One of my stores is surrounded by senior communities. It became very quiet.”
E-commerce & Marketing Mindsets
Members of the group say that e-commerce is playing an increasingly large part in retail operations their retail operations these days, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and customer’s need for remote access.
Brown is the group’s leader on e-commerce, having had a platform for several years. His online sales doubled in 2019 and are on pace to double again in 2020. Rutti, who has been in business for only four years, has also been active in online sales.
His biggest tip for the group and for other retailers? Make sure your inventory management systems are tied directly to your e-commerce platform, and that you have a way to securely communicate with customers.
Elley allows his customers to set up and pay for rental reservations online, which simplifies order pickup.
Howell and McGough are not in the e-commerce game yet. And while McGough acknowledges he will have to move that way, he calls e-commerce a “bad word” and wants to provide customers with a boutique experience in his stores.
But if retailers are going to provide that in-person experience, customers have to know about it. That’s one area the IMR members have focused on—learning marketing tips from one another.
“I felt I had a pretty strong grasp on social media, advertising and running events, but I’m still blown away at what I learn from others in the group,” said Anderson, who earlier in his career worked in marketing for Whole Foods Market. And while his company runs its marketing in-house, he’s picked up tips from other members who use marketing agencies.
“I’ve been inspired by all the techniques a professionally run marketing organization uses,” he said.
In another example, McGough noticed Elley sending thank-you notes to his top customers and created a similar program in his stores. Handwritten communications help engage customers after the sale and keep them coming back, he said.
Sign Me Up
For retailers looking to join, things are on hold until after the pandemic. However, Anderson, the group’s president, said expanding the group for additional perspectives is planned for the future. Retailers can reach out on the “About” page of the IMR website for more information (imretailers.com).
The group has also spoken with VGM, AAHomecare and big industry vendors like Golden and Pride about working together in the future. The ultimate goal is to increase the presence and visibility of retail HME in the industry, said Anderson.
“If you look at retail and billing in DME as a Venn diagram, what are the major differences? They bill for items, we have customers pay out of pocket. What’s the same? So many of the products we carry!” he said. “That’s why our group still finds Medtrade beneficial; we get to walk the trade show floor and talk with some of our biggest accounts and see the latest and greatest.”
“I’m excited to continue the conversations we’ve had with advocacy organizations and vendors and grow the focus anywhere and everywhere on retail in the HME industry,” Anderson said