As one of the first mobility retailers on the high street, Bush Healthcare has weathered everything the market has thrown at it over the last four decades. Few other dealers can boast such longevity in the sector, which is testament to its model and approach to business. Founder Martin Bush offers his views on the evolving industry and outlines how the retailer has managed to thrive while so many others have been forced out of the market.
Arguably out on a limb from the mainstream mobility retail landscape, over the last 40 years, Bush Healthcare has gone about building its estate and earning itself a strong grip on the South Wales region. The dealership now has 10 stores spread across the most populated region of Wales, with two soon opening across the border in Hereford and Bristol. It is also one of the largest equipment providers to local authorities and councils in the area with substantial part of its business made up of contractual work. The dealership clearly has good pedigree. Its figurehead, Martin
Bush, has been at the helm from the beginning and is one of the first mobility retailers to have begun operating in the industry. The fact the business is still trading, innovating and expanding is testament to the robustness of its proven model, while many of its competitors have fallen by the wayside in a market which today, is almost unrecognisable to how it used to look.
But success has not come overnight. Bush, a former international racing cyclist, sowed the seeds for the modern business from a small cycle shop making wheelchair wheels for a local hospital. Local authority contracts provided the foundation for the mobility provider, which since then, has edged further into retail, says Bush, who runs the business alongside general manager Stephen Power.
“We were probably one of the first mobility dealers to have high street shops in the UK, no doubt about it. There were a couple of smaller ones but we were the first to have a proper high street presence. It just stemmed from there. We looked at different shops that were available in different towns and now we’ve got 10 shops. We’re looking to expand all the time but only if it’s comfortable for us.”
“There are lots of people in it for a quick buck. That’s frustrating. We’ve all got to make money but there’s a line. The nature of the people we deal with, it’s easy to oversell because they’re trusting”
Opening up shops on the high street however is a strategy many retailers have avoided over the years. The obvious problems surrounding higher rents, rates and a lack of parking for elderly and infirm customers, make high street locations risky places to trade from. And Bush admits, some high streets are “strange” and difficult.
“But they do give us a presence and people know about us and they walk in there. [We have] a few where you can park outside — others are high street stores — good or bad, I’m not sure. Our big store is the one beneath the Tesco in Newport. That’s a very good store and the footfall is good.” In fact, Bush Healthcare gets more footfall at its ‘Tesco store’ than at any of its high street locations.
Ashley Jenkins, who runs multimedia and development for the business, adds that it’s about familiarity among clients. “People know where we are and they keep coming back to us.”
The frustration of online retail competition
Looking at the map, you might think Bush Healthcare operates unopposed from its stronghold in South Wales, with only a handful of other retailers, including two Ableworld stores offering local competition. But the dealer has nevertheless taken steps to ensure it stays ahead of its rivals.
Bush says that some retailers in the market have come in with a strategy of ‘stacking high and selling cheap’. But in his eyes, that does not work.
“People come into our stores for a reason. They will rarely walk in and browse around. I know it sounds daft but I’ve always said it — it’s not retail. People say ‘of course it is’, but it isn’t. People come in for a special product, it’s not a Tesco food shop. And I think that’s important. We don’t stack it high and sell it cheap, we have the product that we think they want.”
It is this strategy that has supported the dealer’s longevity while some other companies have folded over the years. And it will prove all the more important when Bush Healthcare crosses the border with its new England stores, which are likely to come up against much stiffer opposition given the proximity and density of rival mobility firms.
But for Bush, trading the way in which the company does, is not part of a grand scheme to achieve mobility domination, it is about serving a need effectively, responsibly and simply. That way, the business takes care of itself. “That’s how we’ve expanded,” says Bush. “There was never any expectation to have 10 stores. If I sat here 20 years ago thinking that, I’d have been in dream world. We’ve just bumbled along. We’re happy doing the business the way we’ve always done it.”
“I think that by the end of this year there will be a number of big mobility companies gone to the wall. Absolutely no doubt about it”
For Bush, the onus on responsible trading is all the more important in today’s market, which is seeing a huge growth in e-commerce platforms selling mobility products. He explains: “There are online sellers who totally go and rip off people and it’s not isolated. There are lots of people in it for a quick buck. That’s frustrating. We’ve all got to make money but there’s a line. The nature of the people we deal with, it’s easy to oversell because they’re trusting. It’s frustrating, because a lot of the customers have no concept of money half the time and the conman takes advantage of that and it gives the industry a bad name.”
What’s more, Bush finds it frustrating that most internet scooter retailers do not, in his eyes, make enough money to justify the customer service they claim they can provide. And as a result, reputable dealerships are left to pick up the pieces for customers when equipment goes wrong. Bush Healthcare regularly has people come to it who have purchased a scooter for cheaper online and need it repairing because the internet retailer has failed to provide adequate aftersales.
Bush in fact, disagrees with the company repairing another reseller’s product. While he will repair equipment for people who have been mis-sold items and it is not their fault, he finds it irritating when customers come in to browse products, try them out and then buy them online instead. “I can’t blame them for that,” says Bush. “But when it goes wrong, they find us again, and that’s frustrating.”
“The problem is, a wheelchair or scooter is a medical device and you can’t really buy one online and get the right product. How can we justify selling a rise recliner online to someone in Manchester — if something goes wrong, we can’t get up there. It’s nonsense and it shouldn’t be allowed. But government legislation says that it is allowed.”
A tough gig for one-man-bands
The entry of online resellers has undeniably been one of the largest upheavals in the mobility sector since the millennium. But their entry and the issues they cause for a lot of conventional bricks and mortar distributors are not a far cry from the large number of retailers who sprung up in the 80s when the market first came to fruition. In this way, the dynamics of the sector have remained similar throughout its existence.
Bush estimates that in the beginning there were around 274 companies importing mobility scooters from the Far East into the UK because “everybody thought it was a boom industry”. He comments: “I’m sat here thinking it’s not a boom industry. Mobility shops opened up and promised the world and they disappeared as fast as they came. Everybody wanted to sell a scooter and make £500 but they didn’t want to go back to Mrs Jones because she’d forgotten to turn the key on. They left a huge amount of issues. I could see it happening.”
“We just carried on doing our own honourable and ethical thing because we knew that some of these businesses weren’t going to survive. You can’t get into a price war, that’s nonsense. There’s no point. The people who came into the business came in to make money and that’s all they were interested in. They didn’t have any thoughts about giving the service.”
Opening up a new concept in today’s market however, is not quite as easy as it used to be, feels Bush, who questions whether a ‘one-man-band’ would be able to survive and be successful. He believes you have got to be a certain size to be able to get your costs and buying right. But he admits that he would like to see more independents than big groups because “the end-user will get a better service”.
“I think it would be nearly impossible to set up now as a one-man-band. It’s impossible to sell it cheaper than the online guys, who can sell cheaper than even we can get it for, and give free delivery. But the good guys; TGA, Roma, Van Os, wouldn’t stock a shop next door to us, they’re pretty honourable and that’s how it should be. I think that by the end of this year there will be a number of big mobility companies gone to the wall. Absolutely no doubt.”
Life at the coal face
Over the last four decades Bush Healthcare has built up a solid network of shops, customers and council contracts. The question now, is how does it continue to develop its model and stay ahead of the game? For example, would it consider delving into the world of franchising? “A franchise model would appeal to me,” responds Bush. “We thought about it. But you can’t swallow the world.”
A lot of the progress will be made by ensuring the company is able to withstand market pressures, such as Brexit costs, rents, rates and government funding cuts, to name just a few. Innovation and diversification will be important. To this end, Bush Healthcare is experimenting with a new hearing department set to open at its Abergavenny store and hopes its others will follow suit. It is also looking at running wheelchair access conversions for vehicles at its Bridgend store.
Suppliers can also help dealerships through the trying times but some, Bush believes, leave a lot to be desired when it comes to supporting dealer partners. Bush says mobility retail is much harder than some other parts of the supply chain give it credit for.
“Some haven’t got a clue what it’s like on the pointed end. We’ve had people approach us to buy us out and I’ve said if three of us walked away this place would collapse in five seconds. But they don’t see it. Some mobility manufactures try to control the dealers and they upset a lot of people. A lot of the mobility stores are genuine guys and just want to do a good service. The big money men, they want more. They’re in the wrong industry.”
In spite of the tough nature of the coal face of the mobility market, Bush Healthcare has remained one of only several constant forces on the retail side in the last few decades. The team at the South Wales dealership seems to have found a solid formula for longevity and it is evidently a business that the top suppliers trust and like working with. With imminent expansion on the cards it is also clear that the company is set on thriving and developing rather than simply surviving.
While nobody can predict what’s round the corner, the best thing mobility dealers can do in a changing environment is be the best version of themselves. Years of experience has taught Bush Healthcare that striving for a watertight business helps it weather tough climates. Bush admits that he does not know where the industry is going, but concludes: “Whenever I travel, I always look at the mobility stores and I’ve never ever found one as good as ours. I’m pleased to say that.”