Karma Mobility’s strategy is to market-test potential products before launching them and recently it has been busy gathering feedback from dealers on some new wheelchairs and powerchairs.
AMP hears from general manager Mark Duffield about the process it goes through to ensure products are right for the market and why dealer input is so valuable.
What were you looking to get out of Trade Days last month?
We were showing some potential new products and we dipped our toe into the water to see what the market reaction was. All but one of the new products went down well. Some of the products were a real improvement. But some wheelchairs are dabbling in steel and typically we’re known for lightweight aluminium models so that wasn’t as well-received as we’d hoped. The steel wheelchair we exhibited probably won’t make it to market. Another product was a lightweight powerchair, the E-Flexx, and there was mixed feeling about that one. It has lithium batteries which makes it more costly.
Is that your usual strategy when bringing a product to market?
Yes, that’s what we like to do with things like Trade Days. It’s just trying to gauge how the market will react because we don’t want to buy it, launch it and then get caught with stock that won’t sell. Shows like that are great for us as a small company, it acts like a springboard. We haven’t got a large team to take things around the country. If the exhibition is well-attended we can get a broad range of opinions, see whether retailers like the products or not, and then we can make decisions on new products.
Were there any products which retailers didn’t take to?
We had a steel wheelchair that didn’t go down so well. It’s a cheaper material to make wheelchairs out of so it’s less expensive than Karma’s usual items. Karma has got a new factory in China which helps keep the cost down. But there are some times where people don’t really see the attraction of a cheaper model and also because we’ve only ever done lightweight wheelchairs people don’t see the heavier, steel ones as our traditional market. The thinking behind it is that it’s a lightweight steel wheelchair but it’s still a bit heavy for the tastes of UK retailers, generally.
Which chairs have gone down particularly well with dealers recently?
The new version of the VIP tilt-in space is unique and seems popular. This is the second generation of that product. The manufacturers have taken what they’ve learnt from the first one, enhanced it and added more features and there are a few people who are quite excited by it — especially people who already stock the original VIP. For the vast majority of retailers they will probably see an incremental improvement but if they’re dealing with that product day in day out then you will notice quite a big improvement.
What are the specific features and enhancements on the new VIP?
The original model has got a tilt function without any recline. The new model will have tilt and recline. And it will have two types — one is a fixed recline so you can adjust the backrest level and the other is a fully adjustable recline to 30 degrees. The headrest that we used to have was quite a basic backrest extension with a pillow but now it’s more adjustable.
How important is it that chairs look good as well as being functional and lightweight?
It’s very important for us because we sell to retailers and the end-user has got to like what they see. It’s not like we’re selling predominately to the NHS where you largely get what you’re given. We’re in a showroom in among other wheelchairs and we’re not necessarily the cheapest so we’ve got to have unique features and unique styling to make us stand out. Some models have patented features, too.
Do you have any new products in the pipeline?
Not in the very near future. But Karma is a nice company to work with because they have got a good R&D department that they have to support and they do regularly come out with new products. They don’t always fit our market but we do like to try them, like the steel chair for example. There is one chair that we sell a lot of, one of the lightest chairs available, and that was designed after our request. That chair is the other way round — it sells well here and they have a worldwide market for it too. We didn’t design it but the idea and the demand came from the UK.
Do you have a lot of freedom to suggest new products to Karma?
Yes, we tell them. They don’t always make everything that I say they should but I do feed back to them. It’s not a complicated process but it’s a big investment for them to decide to put something into production and they’ve got a lot of worldwide customers. They have to decide which ones present the best opportunities and then proceed with those.
What trends do you envisage for 2018?
I think more of the same for us. Having stylish wheelchairs and lightweight products that are reliable. If they’re not reliable then people won’t come back for more, so you have to have it for the long term.
What are your priorities when looking at a mobility product?
It really depends on the product. A tilt-in space chair would be very different to a lightweight manual chair. But you’re always looking at weights, appearances and having a variety of sizes and features.
How are you looking to market your new equipment?
We’ve got an online presence which we invest a lot in and we also try and communicate with the dealers and make sure that they’re aware of the product.
Looking more widely at Karma, how has this year been for you?
We haven’t really brought anything new in this year but we have previewed those products at Trade Days which will come onto the market next year around spring time.
What have been your major challenges this year?
Currency has been the biggest issue; it’s forcing our costs to increase. People like a bit more money to ship parcels and we haven’t chosen to pass those costs on to customers. We will continue that as far as possible. It’s a challenge for everyone at the moment. It’s very unsettled and nobody knows what’s going to happen. If I knew what the currency was going to do maybe I’d have a job in the City!
You already work with around 300 retailers, what is your strategy to grow this network?
We just need to promote ourselves and look for dealers in areas where we haven’t got coverage. Where we’ve got someone who’s doing quite a lot of business with us then it’s hard for us to open another account just down the road so there’s a balance to strike. We’re not just looking to increase numbers; we’d like to have a reasonable coverage of the UK, if possible.
How do you manage your delivery operation?
The warehouse allows us to hold sufficient stock so that we have product when people want it. That means they don’t have to worry about us being out of stock and so they don’t have to buy 20 units and sit on them. They don’t need the storage, they can buy a variety of chairs and we can do a discount across the range. The UK isn’t a huge country so we can get to most places the next working day by either a pallet or delivery company.
How much do you sell to the NHS?
We do a little bit with the NHS but most of the business goes through the private market. Our issue is that Karma makes nice chairs but they’re not the cheapest. So it’s whether people will look at the bigger picture and invest in a slightly more expensive chair that lasts a lot longer.
What’s the wheelchair market looking like generally?
There’s always a lot of competition. I can’t really discern any really strong trends. I think the market years ago used to be a lot more seasonal than it is now. We seemed to die a death in the winter but that’s not the case now. Although we certainly sell more wheelchairs in the summer. To put the cards on the table, we’re quite a small company, we know what our retailers tell us and we can see how they’re doing. But we’re not an expert on the entirety of the wheelchair market, unfortunately.
And what are you seeing from the dealers?
More of the same really. Many are doing very well. There are obviously some people who have decided the market isn’t for them, Simplyhealth for example, which we used to do a bit with. The others seem to be ticking along quite nicely.
Is it disappointing to your company that Simplyhealth has exited the retail market?
They weren’t a key customer but they were growing so that’s a disappointment. The showrooms were very nice but in the end they didn’t want to have a lot of ‘clutter’ and in the case of wheelchairs I think you have to have a variety of sizes and options for people to look at. I think for end-users, if they can go and see a variety of products in one go and they feel like they’ve had a choice then I think that’s much better.