Ableworld’s most successful franchise has bold ambitions and a vision of becoming one of the largest mobility players on the competitive South Coast. The latest step in its climb to the top is targeting councils with its equipment. We hear from director, Jeff Newman, stairlift manager, Steven Newman, and Ableworld UK managing director, Mike Williams, about how the retailer is evolving to meet its goals.
With its dense and ageing population, towns and cities along the South Coast are prime areas for mobility retailers to ply their trade. One of the most attractive, and by extension, competitive areas for equipment distributors is Southampton. In the city, around 25,000 of the 260,000-strong population are aged 65 and over, according to the 2011 census.
As a result, the area has attracted a range of mobility retail companies, including what has become Ableworld UK’s most successful franchise business.
Ableworld Southampton is the product of five years of dedication from director and store manager, Jeff Newman, and his son, stairlift and engineering manager, Steven Newman. The business now turns over in excess of £1m a year compared to under £600,000 in its first year of trading.
The climb in revenue alone makes Ableworld Southampton one of the most successful traders in Hampshire but the Newmans are far from done.
Steven says he envisages continuous growth for the company. Both he and his father have come from industries completely alien to mobility, which he says is the reason it has taken five years for the business to reach the standard and level it is currently at. Now though, it is time to branch out, he explains.
“We can’t think of any limit and we only limit ourselves. We do want a very large company all the way down the South Coast. This is our first one and it’s been amazing and has succeeded our expectations. We’ve put a lot of hard work into it and now we’ve got the base.
“It’s really important to get the infrastructure right, the right staff, the systems and the vans. We’re up to a level now where we can start looking at other places to launch. A second, a third, a fourth.”
Reinforcing the importance of a solid base, Ableworld UK managing director, Mike Williams, adds: “They’ve been wise enough to build a strong foundation so now they can move forward.” Aside from opening new sites, one of the primary ways Ableworld Southampton plans to grow is opening itself up to lucrative new markets, namely, local councils.
To enter this field, Jeff and Steven have expanded the showroom to include new training facilities for occupational therapists (OTs) and a special stairlift centre featuring more than 10 fully operational stairlifts.
Naturally, with any competition coming in you always worry about it and always look at it. But, you can either go in the corner and cry about it or you can get out and fight”
Steven explains that the aim of the new stairlift area is so end-users can be matched with the right option. He says it is one thing going to a user’s house to recommend a product but assessing them on a range of models in-store provides a better service. The correct product, Steven adds, is especially important considering having a stairlift installed is a significant home upgrade.
Importantly, the benefits of proper assessments is not lost on OTs, who are an essential group to get on-side if Ableworld Southampton wants to successfully break into the council provision market.
Mike thinks that OTs would be more than happy to send their clients to the Southampton store, commenting: “I think it’s about trying to get the trust. Much of our competition is only interested in the big ticket lines and will sell on a lead to the stairlift supplier.
“The OTs and the surgeries can trust us with those items but they also know if they send a client here there’s a range of 1,200 other products. We’re able to look after the client from the smaller products but also now, even more importantly, we have a big range of stairlifts. [Stairlifts] have always been a big part of our business and they’re a huge part of what we do.”
Steven says that the new stairlift initiative has already resulted in “huge sales” and the feedback on the training facilities from OTs has been positive. One of the things they have picked up on is that the training area, stairlift room and main shop all complement each other.
He says: “[OTs] think it’s invaluable to be able to come to one place and get everything a client needs to make their life more comfortable. They’ve only got to deal with one company that doesn’t sub-contract anything out. Our pricing structure as it is at the moment is fantastic. Other companies are charging an awful lot for the same products. It’s also to make the council’s budget go further. We can deliver a better and quicker service at a much more reasonable cost.”
It’s really important to get the infrastructure right, the right staff, the systems and the vans. We’re up to a level now where we can start looking at other places to launch. A second, a third, a fourth”
Steven insists that the business is breaking into the market for the right reasons. Local to Southampton, the store owners say that the current situation is “not fair” on the council, which is getting charged above the odds, according to Steven. He adds that the council has small budgets, even when the recent £55m disabled facilities grant injection from the government is taken into account. Ableworld Southampton, he says, can make the council’s pot “go a lot further”, which he argues can only be good for the end-user.
Mike adds: “It’s much more ethical the way we do it. We don’t charge different prices. For everything within the showroom and with our stairlifts, there’s a sheet with a charge. Most of our competition will try and get £2,000 for [a product], and then after hearing we’ve been there, will match our price at £1,195. We go in at our price and that’s it.”
Aside from the council provision market, Steven believes the new element to the showroom will help increase private spend on the business. The store features an array of low ticket items downstairs and while customers are there making small purchases, they will see the stairlift products and become aware of the high ticket items available. Jeff says that often, end-users do not realise what products are on the market until they come in-store and see what is available. Part of the battle therefore, is educating the public through marketing campaigns.
Specifically, end-users need to be educated on the affordability of stairlifts. Jeff says that most customers still think they are far more expensive than they actually are and that to teach them otherwise takes time. Steven adds that as well as marketing, it is also about word-of mouth. He reckons that nearly 40% of people come across the store from word-of-mouth, whether it is consumers or trade professionals.
Stairlifts now make up well over a third of Ableworld Southampton’s annual turnover and it has become manufacturer, Handicare’s largest retail customer. As sales have increased, Steven says dedication on that side of the business has risen considerably. There is no denying that the stairlift sector is booming, with the likes of industry giants Acorn and Stannah turning over £212m and £250m in 2017, respectively. Thyssenkrupp’s stairlift division, meanwhile, projects its sales will double to £1.2bn in the next five years.
Nevertheless, the homelift market is also on the rise. Through-floor lift manufacturers naturally believe that their equipment will surpass stairlifts in the future and in the US, some mobility dealers are already swapping stairlifts for homelifts entirely. But when pressed, Mike says he thinks the trend will be a “slow change” and adds that Ableworld Southampton is considering doing homelifts itself.
It is clear then, that the retailer is proactively evolving and reviewing its business, determined not to fall behind in the developing market. This kind of strategy is vital in an age where customers expect certain things from any retail environment. Steven says that some mobility stores can appear old, messy and have nothing line planned.
“When customers come in here it looks like we’ve put effort in because we have. They can see the hard work and they can see the large range. Everything’s laid out and it’s easy to navigate. If they’re a repeat customer they know where something’s going to be in the store.”
Franchise models in different sectors are sometimes criticised by sceptics for limiting innovation and restricting what business owners can do. But Mike insists Ableworld is always open to “good ideas”, adding: “One of the things about franchise businesses is that, if [Southampton] was our store and we had a manager down here, fine, it might be OK, but it’s much better for a franchisee to really get into the local community and get involved. They care about things in the local areas. It’s their business, they have ownership of it and so it drives innovation.”
So, does Mike envisage this kind of development taking place at other Ableworld stores across the country? He indeed thinks that others could follow suit, although perhaps in areas other than stairlifts. Already in Llandudno, Ableworld UK is fitting a mobility scooter test track at its largest-ever store. Mike explains that it will be an indoor scooter track designed to increase proficiency among end-users as part of its effort to trade responsibly.
It seems that the entire Ableworld business is driving development across its portfolio and Southampton is a shining example of what a dealer can build with a solid foundation, dedication and backing. It goes without saying that in the city however, competition is stiff and success is by no means guaranteed.
Some of the companies to have opened retail sites in Southampton recently include the likes of Adjustamatic, Millbrook Healthcare and CareCo. Steven and Jeff certainly have their work cut out but in defiance, the business recently had its most successful-ever month in October, in terms of turnover.
Mike says: “Naturally, with any competition coming in you always worry about it and always look at it. But, you can either go in the corner and cry about it or you can get out and fight, and as Steven says, they’ve just had their best month ever.”
The city may be an increasingly competitive environment but Ableworld Southampton is certainly not allowing itself to be phased. It spies opportunities in a growing and ageing population and a gap in the council provision market for reasonable prices and quality service.
While the locality continues to attract more mobility retailers, Ableworld’s top franchise will not be knocked off its perch easily. It will draw on all of its own and its parent company’s experience and muscle to lead the local scene and maybe in time, the South Coast too.