SPECIAL REPORT: Shift in bathing aids sector as consumer tastes and needs change

Now considered to be essential components of any adaptive bathroom project, specialist bathing aids are attracting increasing interest in the mobility industry.

Hosts of clever and practical innovations are continually flooding the market, ranging from bath cushions, seats, lifts and hoists, grab rails, sinks, shower accessories and everything in between. As the diversity of the sector increases and it becomes ever-more packed with new equipment it is more important than ever to gauge where the market is likely headed and what consumers are demanding.

Abacus’s Gemini includes an integrated bathing, changing and drying platform.

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It is possible to identify a number of key trends driving the bathing aid sector forward in 2017. One factor is that the emphasis is starting to become heavily focused on the needs of the individual client. Consumers expect more of aids and want aids that are flexible and suitable for the individual’s needs. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is no longer acceptable in the mobility aid market. Specialist Astor-Bannerman believes that bathing support systems which are used in standard baths and specialist baths should be considered “absolutely key”. It advises that the bather must be in a comfortable, secure and supportive position within the bath at all times and the required bathing aids have to be engineered to give the best possible solution to their individual needs.

Abacus Healthcare Gemini

Meanwhile, Gainsborough Specialist Bathing suggests there will be an increasing preference for specialist baths as opposed to wet rooms and accessible showering solutions this year. Adapted showering can be regarded by some healthcare providers and local authorities as a cheaper, faster solution but does not offer the best bather experience for many in the long run, according to the firm.

In the long-term care and dementia sector, Gainsborough regards itself as an established specialist in the provision of power assisted baths with variable height functionality and bather transfer seats. As Gainsborough is focused on meeting the commercial needs of healthcare providers, its baths are designed to deliver the highest levels of operational efficiency, the fastest bather cycle times and the lowest utility consumption. It is claimed these factors result in reduced running costs by approximately 20% without compromising care levels and bather comfort. Running costs are likely to be a key trend in the future of bathing aids and retailers will benefit from selling equipment which has a longer life cycle as opposed to ‘cheap’ equipment.

“We have seen a departure from traditional products as specifiers and users realise that accessible bathrooms can be stylish, as well as functional”

Suppliers and installers of wet rooms and accessible showers would contest the idea that their solutions are going to see less demand moving forward. Wet room specialist, Impey, is seeing bathing trends of its own. “We have noticed difference in the trends assumed by those bathroom adaptations funded by a DFG (disabled facilities grant), and those who are undertaking self-funded adaptations,” says Richard Knox, national sales manager. “In the self-funded domestic bathroom adaptations market, we have seen a departure from traditional institutional styles of product, as specifiers and users realise that accessible bathrooms can be stylish, as well as functional. Tiled level access wet rooms have remained desirable and the use of chrome grab bars and attractive fold-away shower seating is increasing.”

Astor-Bannerman’s Vanna adjustable bath comes in four different lengths.

The company firmly believes that across the board, specifiers are keen adopters of new technology; incorporating products which demonstrate improved functionality and improve performance of accessible wet rooms and shower spaces. Knox also sees the trend for bath replacement shower trays as escalating, as is the desire for slimmer shower trays, he says.

Meanwhile, the trend towards assisted baths is also being driven by the preferences of OTs and disabled bathers, Abacus Healthcare believes. The company supplies and installs specialist baths and regularly works closely with therapists and parents to ensure individual bather needs are met. The therapeutic and well-being benefits of bathing are being more widely recognised by professionals and families despite funding challenges through educational programmes.

But the market can sometimes ignore the most simple and supposedly obvious trends. Bathroom specialist AKW sees safety as the number one priority for bathing aids. “Any solution needs to be designed to provide safe and practical assistance to the user when showering or bathing,” marketing director James Dadd says. However, he advises that both style and aesthetics are becoming increasingly important to users and are key considerations to manufacturers. On top of this, AKW strives to produce solutions which are quick and easy to install for its partners, minimising hassle for increasingly time-poor consumers.

Facing up
Clearly, the bathing aid sector is experiencing fluctuating trends across the board with different suppliers and dealers witnessing varying patterns. However, all firms are similar in that they are facing challenges which must be overcome. Astor-Bannerman, a supplier of bathing aids, sees one of the main challenges as making sure that a specific bathing aid will meet the needs of the user as perfectly as possible immediately and in the long term.

Impey’s Slimfold Horseshoe seat

Consumers are increasingly aware of what’s available on the market and are demanding equipment which is adapted specifically to individual needs. All in the mobility market must recognise this and offer appropriate products to compete. In response to this challenge, sales director, Anthony Kilgarriff, comments: “At Astor-Bannerman we ensure that the clients’ family and care professionals, such as occupational therapists, have as much input as possible into the design of our equipment. We believe that often not enough time is spent asking clients what they want and need, and too much time is spent just producing another piece of equipment in the hope it will work.”

For Knox, a significant challenge is consumers awaiting adaptations via a DFG waiting time. He outlines how Impey has implemented a survey option, where its trained team will make a site visit to establish a best-fit solution for the end user, enabling specifiers to complete their projects quickly and effectively.

AKW is another firm which sees the DFG as a challenge. “Despite recent increases in the DFG there is still an overwhelming proportion of unmet need for major household adaptations,” comments Dadd. He believes “unmet need is arguably the single biggest challenge in the bathing aids market today”. With the aging population, this demand will only grow larger and become more urgent. A huge number of people that have a need for accessible bathing are looking to self-fund their adaptations. This is due to several reasons, which can include rejection from council funding or a long waiting list when the adaptation is urgent.

Standing out from the crowd
One challenge naturally facing all firms in the bathing aid market is competition from one another. As such, it is essential leading providers look to differentiate. For Gainsborough, that means specialising in bathing solutions that aim to be more efficient and flexible so a wider range of care needs can be met in the most cost effective manner. For example, Dementia and neuro related conditions can produce complex, diverse and changeable bathing challenges. Hence specialist baths need to be adaptable so that safety and care remain optimised whilst providing budget savings.

Gainsborough’s Gentona provides a 20% saving on water and electricity consumption.

For Abacus, differentiating means highlighting the advantages of flagship and innovative models which are already established within the bathing aid market. The Gemini bath is a product Abacus claims differentiates from other baths and in turn shows up the brand as innovative and forward-thinking. The Gemini is the only power assisted bath that encompasses a ‘double lift’ action and integrated bathing, drying and changing platform, Abacus claims. This platform negates the need to manually lift and lower a semi-ambulant bather into and out of the bath and is ideal for children and adults with limited postural control. Bathers can lie down with complete support without the difficulties associated with sitting upright in a shower chair.

Other firms recommend that the real difference is made through client interaction and customer experience. “Providers need to be customer focused at all times and really understand the needs and wants of the users and care professionals from both a product and company perspective,” states Kilgarriff. “Building trust with your customers is important, but it’s also vital that when they do finally put their trust in you, you exceed their expectations and continue to treat each like they are your only customer. This is something that we at Astor-Bannerman pride ourselves on doing and, of course, should be the norm for any good company and provider.”

Impey’s Supreem vinyl floor.

Meanwhile, providing a broad choice of well designed, safe products, rather than a specialist selection of a few, is one of the key differentiators for leading manufacturers and providers of bathroom aids, says AKW. This in turn reduces time and hassle for installers and it enables them access a wide selection of solutions from a single supplier – a ‘one stop shop’ approach

Dealers, suppliers and installers of bathing aids and indeed adaptive bathrooms will all strive to stand out from one another. It goes without saying that competing for business is a challenge for any firm. It would appear however, the bathing aid market has ample space for key players to move around and as long as healthy competition exists, we should expect continually improved products and a better deal for the end user.

Far from a scrapping ground for custom it is hoped across the board that the bathing aids market will continue to see steady expansion into 2017 and beyond. For some, this will mean products which can do more and are more suitable for clients. For others it will mean meshing technology with service and many suppliers will likely look to improve dealer relations so that installers and dealers of equipment can boost their own offers. This said, trends are a potentially contentious subject and each firm will have its own opinion. One thing the sector can count on is that it is set for an exciting 12 months packed with product launches and a host of innovations.

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