Britain is the mobility scooter capital of Europe. Although quality, current data is hard to come by, the last piece of comprehensive market research two years ago by Rica found there were well over 350,000 of them in the UK. At that stage the market was growing between 5% and 10% a year, with around 80,000 units sold per annum.
Figures for 2017 are not yet available, but if the market has met the targets set by earlier reports, we can assume the sector is indeed thriving. And with an ever expanding and ageing population, the mobility scooter sector can expect to see sales rise in line with this. As people with disabilities continue to build their independence and seek to go further, heavy-duty Class 3 scooters in particular are becoming more and more popular. It is an exciting time for the Class 3 category and 2017 is primed for considerable growth once again.
Electric Mobility is one company that envisages this growth. Through its network of dealers it has been selling scooters under its Rascal brand for three decades. Looking ahead, managing director, Jonathan Hearth, predicts that growth in the Class 3 sector will be strong as customers realise the potential of the latest products. Innovations such as very large batteries, Limited Slip Differentials and USB charging of mobile devices are all features that make modern Class 3 scooters attractive to the consumer.
In line with suppliers, one major retailer, Scoota Mart, is also predicting a “very positive outlook”. According to managing director, Spencer Coe, a sizeable 30% of its scooter sales are Class 3 models and annual sales are once again expected to rise due to existing customers renewing and new customers coming into the fold.
Such is the quality and range of modern Class 3 scooters, suppliers are beginning to see 8mph roadworthy models replacing car ownership in many areas as they can be more cost effective and flexible for local independence. Daniel Stone, TGA Mobility managing director, explains: “This is being driven in part by the Motability scheme, which helps owners lease a scooter, if they prefer, by using part of their Personal Independence Payment. With the Motability package, Class 3 scooter owners benefit from a new product every three years, free servicing, insurance and breakdown assistance – a very attractive proposition for consumers.” Class 3 scooters are becoming commonplace and hence people are more familiar with their presence on pavements and the road.
“We are ordering in 50-100 scooters rather than four or six at a time to remain competitive”
As the demographic of the UK population continues to swing towards older people, TGA Mobility is seeing more individuals seeking a quality and reliable mobility solution so they can live on their own terms. As the styling of Class 3 scooters these days is quite often modern and attractive, owners are not stigmatised as they may have been years ago, instead they generate greater product awareness and market growth.
Outside of urban areas and town centres, firms are seeing a growing demand for Class 3 scooters that are capable of providing safe and stable performance in the countryside.
Stone comments: “Having the ability to enjoy independence in rural settings, along tracks and trails, is essential for people who live in more isolated areas as public transport continues to be cut. If a scooter is well built and has active suspension, high range batteries, supportive seating and is reliable, then journeys of up to 30 miles are achievable with peace of mind.” He continues: “With no need for petrol or diesel, these electric vehicles are cheap to run and are environmentally friendly so carbon footprint is reduced and noise pollution is minimised. Awareness of these factors will continue to increase along with the knowledge that thorough pre-purchase assessments, training and trustworthy after-sales support is crucial for hassle-free freedom.”
Growth is a highly likely prospect in the Class 3 sector then. But what have been the recent trends in road legal mobility scooters? Hearth explains how the latest products embrace modern technology. Electric Mobility is seeing an increasing demand for larger battery packs giving ranges of up to 40 miles, increased comfort and semi off road capability with Limited Slip Differential transmissions and USB power outputs for mobile devices and GPS units. Its Rascal Ventura, for example, features a hydraulic tiller adjustment, LED lighting, LCD instrument panel and a USB power outlet with a view to maximise its appeal to the modern user.
Whilst mobility scooter suppliers universally agree that reliability and comfort along with technological features are key considerations for consumers, there are other trends emerging. These days TGA is seeing scooter users wanting more streamlined and ergonomic designs that do not resemble old fashioned mobility scooters. Both Electric Mobility and TGA, as well as any number of other mobility scooter suppliers, do not ignore this trend. Picking out a handful of mobility scooters from either supplier, it is clear to see designs are now sleek and appealing, contrary to previous years where they have appeared cumbersome and unattractive.
Although the market is indeed growing it is by no means immune to the challenges mobility firms across the board are facing. Certain companies are expecting a ‘Brexit lag’, where it is predicted the true ramifications of the vote will not be felt until two years down the line. For Electric Mobility at least, the direct impact of the vote and the resulting drop in the pound has meant prices are likely to be affected. Because its scooters are built in the Far East and priced in US dollars, there has been a commensurate increase in the prices throughout the distribution chain from which Electric Mobility is not immune.
Fluctuating exchange rates have increased prices across the board. The cost of imported components and scooters has increased, which has affected high street customers. Many manufacturers and suppliers have tried to minimise this price increase as best they can. However, to reduce impact from a marketing point of view, it is important to focus on product value, not just price alone. That’s according to TGA’s Stone. In spite of the price hikes, he believes that leading scooter suppliers will continue to support retailers with added value benefits that help justify the higher price point, such as extended warranties, brand building for greater customer awareness and free product training. Separate to financial pressures, Stone details how leaving the EU could affect other factors, for example the 8mph top speed limit which is unique to Britain.
Unsurprisingly, retailer’s prices have also increased. According to Coe: “This is a direct result of suppliers putting their prices up 10%-15% coinciding with the collapse of the pound against the dollar, which also had a knock-on effect with the freight cost for importing the containers. A perfect storm in all the wrong ways, unfortunately. We have tried to minimise increases by purchasing huge bulk orders, however this can limit choice for the user as we have to predict as best we can what we need to stock. If the customer decides on a product we do not have in stock, the increase is around 25% on last year. We are ordering 50-100 mobility scooters rather than four or six at a time to remain competitive.”
Aside from the Brexit beast, there is also the ongoing debate about compulsory driving tests and the need for insurance. This is regarded by Hearth as one of the greatest challenges the Class 3 sector is likely to see moving forward. “While there are strong arguments in support of a mandatory scheme, unless and until insurance becomes mandatory for bicycles we think it unlikely that this will be mandated,” he comments. “Another issue that is becoming of more concern is the number of Class 3 products being imported that clearly do not meet European standards and where either ignorant or unscrupulous importers are taking advantage of vulnerable customers.” Hearth highlights the importance and responsibility that reputable retailers and major manufacturers have in protecting disabled consumers from being short-changed by some organisations.
Stone also believes that a cheap solution is seldom an adequate one. But he says that although lower prices will always be attractive to potential scooter buyers people are increasingly becoming more aware that buying cheap leads to a poor ownership experience. Building on from Hearth, Stone believes it is important to continue educating the market place that savings are not necessarily monetary but are time and hassle as well. “If customers purchase a quality scooter from a well-known and trusted brand, they may pay a little extra however there are wide ranging advantages such as peace of mind and uncompromised independence. This is delivered through comprehensive warranties, responsive after sales support and servicing that ensures product performance is 100% satisfactory,” he says. Although we can say then, that the market will likely grow, it will not be as straightforward as initially thought.
The road ahead
In comparison to the Class 2 market where ‘boot scooters’ reign supreme, Class 3 is still the smaller segment. However this does not mean dealers should shy away from the rewards they can reap from Class 3 models. Hearth reassures: “In value terms the Class 3 market is of much greater significance due to the increased capability and costs that go with these larger models.” TGA has seen a substantial rise in demand for ‘boot scooters’ but it insists people still want high-end features and design and a stable ride even if they are driving a compact machine.
Although the deflated pound’s impact on imports and overall scooter prices is forcing firms to up their prices, mobility scooters are still a product people need rather than a luxury item. As Scoota Mart’s Coe explains, people tend to renew their scooters once every few years and they will have to get used to the higher prices. Even though this is the first time the retailer has had to raise its prices up since the 90s and suppliers are also being squeezed, it is not a doomsday scenario.
Ultimately, with an increasing popularity for heavy duty mobility scooters with additional technological features, the Class 3 market can only expect a healthy expansion.