Ross Care’s managing director, James Parramore, recently opened a new addition to its retail arm which is a fresh model in the sector. The company hopes it could set the tone for similar shops in the future and contribute to a market shift to better integrate health and social care. AMP visited Parramore and his team to see first-hand how the outlet is paving the way for a new take on mobility equipment retail and servicing.
Launching a new retail model in the mobility industry is a risk. To know this you only need to cast your thoughts back to last year when Simplyhealth’s radical retail proposition failed to make its experience and advice-based model a viable venture. So when Ross Care announced it would be launching a new proposal fusing together its retail arm, healthcare advice facilities and local authority wing, observers can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow.
But on entering the firm’s Independent Living Superstore in Manchester, where you are greeted by friendly staff and an expansive product range, it’s evident that on the surface the shop has not strayed from the core virtues that have proven vital to prosperity in the retail sector over time. On closer inspection however, the information points dotted around, Changing Places facility and specialised zones for trying out equipment suggest it is something different. And behind the scenes, meeting the managerial team, it becomes clear that the new store is anything but a traditional model.
When managing director James Parramore set up the new venture with his team back in May it followed months of work to come up with a site which would unite different parts of the Ross Care business in one building. Designed to be much more than ‘just another shop’, the superstore wanted to be an integral part of the community fabric it would be weaving itself into.
“The market is rapidly changing but I think if you’ve got a broader business you’re better placed to be able to respond to those changes”
For marketing and sales manager Alastair Ronaldson, the site in Manchester is a good representation of what the wider Ross Care business does in the healthcare market. Agreeing, Parramore says that it can be seen as a microcosm of the company.
“It signifies what we’re about as a business, which is about offering great service and highly qualified and experienced team members and clinical staff to support not only our contract partners but also the local population, charities and other organisations in the area.”
Designed from the start to be “a lot more than just a mobility shop”, Ross Care spoke to key stake holders in the area to find out what was missing from the local mobility and healthcare landscape and to see how it could be more of a benefit than somewhere that only sells product. Parramore explains that the shop represents an interesting take on the industry in terms of where Ross Care sits in the arena.
“Health and social care is a very challenging issue for many people, whether it is companies, organisations, the NHS or end-users. What [this site] is very much about is bringing everything together and acting as a community hub to support all those different organisations, partners and service-users in the area.”
How then has Ross Care gone about making its independent living centre into a hub serving the community’s mobility equipment needs? Ronaldson describes how the company ran several focus groups during the development process and came up with a design which could orientate people around the world of mobility products and assistive equipment as well as being somewhere to buy them from.
“We gathered people from various charities and local authorities to talk about the whole concept to ensure that what we were going to build was a genuine required asset, rather than just our business plans put to the local area. And within a week of opening the doors, before the shelves were all stocked, we invited everyone in again to get feedback and that enabled us to talk about what services we wanted to design here rather than just the fabric of the building,” Ronaldson outlines.
Much of the service offering revolves around peer to peer support, combating social isolation and generally helping people to navigate social care. Information and guidance is key to this proposition and for Parramore signposting plays a huge part. “It’s that community hub feel. It’s more than a shop. It’s about things like having a Changing Places facility. There are only a handful of those in Manchester and the nearest one to here is in the Etihad stadium. It was a great investment for us and is an example of us investing in the local community.”
While it’s not uncommon for dealers to offer coffee mornings, scooter clubs and the odd information poster, the scale and organisation of Ross Care’s operation takes service and advice to another level. And in today’s retail climate, having a store which is much more than simply a shop can help businesses to remain diverse and able to cope with industry pressures.
Parramore considers this to be vital in the current market. While he notes that statutory services do a good job of helping people through health and social care he says in the future other companies and organisations are going to have to offer different options. Groups, including retailers, will need to make communities more aware of products and services and be able to deliver them too, he says. Through the new Independent Living Superstore, Parramore hopes Ross Care can be a key driver in the wider sector shift he feels has to come.
“Hopefully we can play a strong role in supporting that integrated agenda because we can bring different agencies together. And we have an understanding of the relationships and complexities of some of those relationships. I think we have a good understanding of what is required to bring things together to get the right outcome for the service user.”
And if greater integration between statutory services and private retail is on the cards then the new superstore is a step ahead. Ross Care’s in-house OT, Chris McComiskey, believes that the two elements can be very complementary. While companies like Ross Care can tell people what they’re eligible for and signpost them onto local services, authorities can also refer people onto private retailers so they can get the equipment they need.
Ronaldson reinforces this, describing “seamless integration” in the store between these two elements as something the firm works hard at. He says: “It’s not the easy route. It’s not the simple route to be an online retailer for example. We’re working hard to deliver the customer the combined benefits of the breadth and depth of what Ross Care is, not just our retail side.”
Parramore adds: “Yes, this is a commercial building, we pay a retail rent, but our commitment is the space we’ve invested in. It’s not just about finding space to put product on, it’s about finding space that people can use in different ways.”
“It’s not just about finding space to put product on, it’s about finding space that people can use in different ways”
The management team at Ross Care appears sure of where it wants to head and the store model it thinks the industry needs moving forward. The company wants to expand the availability of its integrated service approach. In other areas this may or may not include a dedicated retail space and it has various ways of achieving it, which depend on different localities. Nevertheless, Parramore confirms that rolling out these services across its sites is “certainly of interest”.
“It’s not been open that long but it’s worked great in this location so far and certainly we’ll be looking at [rolling it out] to see if it will work in other situations. We have similar models within some of our contracts. This is unique but the principal’s not. It’s that principal of working with our partners that we try and bring in across our whole business.”
While the new Independent Living Superstore is a promising proposition and has already received positive feedback from organisations and individuals in both the community and industry, it is nevertheless a risk on Ross Care’s part. And in such a tough and unpredictable climate many mobility firms would be put off from such a move.
But Parramore feels it is important for Ross Care to help drive the industry forward and lead by example, even if it means wading into uncharted waters. He says that companies have to be proactive in moving forward otherwise they can struggle in this sector. Ronaldson adds that there isn’t a well-trodden path for businesses to follow so Ross Care makes a point of being on the front foot.
So is progression in the mobility sector about taking risks? “Of course,” says Parramore. “As a business leader risk is integral to what you do but it’s about managing risk. Some would say opening this store was a risk. You try and mitigate that risk by going through processes like going through the engagement process, getting people involved and asking them what they think. If you just go out and do what you think is right, then that’s risky. You have to understand the need, the product range, what you want, what customers want and get the right prices.
“I don’t think you can manage any business or service without taking any risks. Any organisation has to have that attitude to move forward. Every decision that you make, especially if you’re trying to improve and develop, can carry risk, but it’s having the right people, processes and systems to manage it,” advises Parramore. Ronaldson concludes: “It’s risky to stand still. It depends how you look at it.”
It is clear then that Ross Care is not afraid to take a leap if it means developing the business and its customer offering. But in the future, which direction will the company be moving in as part of its efforts to help develop the wider health and social care environment?
Parramore confirms that retail will remain a fundamental part of Ross Care. But he adds that it’s part of the same. “In the future I see the sector moving in that direction — it will become more integrated. All aspects are important and I think they’re all part of the same solution in the future. The market is rapidly changing but I think if you’ve got a broader business you’re better placed to be able to respond to those changes for you and your customer.”
Both the retail and local authority segments will remain central to Ross Care’s proposition moving forward. Its latest outlet is a shining example of not only its own enlightened approach to business but also the direction in which in the industry could be moving. Where others have not been successful, so far, Ross Care seems to have struck a happy balance between a product offering and an experiential advice centre. If similar store set-ups and integrated approaches start appearing across the industry it will confirm the long-term viability of this model. Now the question is who else will be among those taking the leap?