FEATURE: AMP pays a visit to the dynamic duo at Mobility Aids Centre

Dave and Jason Watling of the Mobility Aids Centre will be instantly recognisable by much of the industry. What might be less clear is how they have managed to run a successful mobility retail business for nearly 40 years. AMP pays a visit to the Peterborough showroom to learn how diversity has kept the business ahead of the game and how it hopes to weather future challenges.

As a father and son team that has seen the coming of mobility scooters, there are few retailers in the market as experienced and well-tested as Dave and Jason Watling of the Mobility Aids Centre in Peterborough. Attending his first Naidex show at the age of 13, Jason has worked in the mobility industry all his life alongside his father, who now 72, was one of the original founders of the British Association of Wheelchair Distributors (BAWD) before it became the BHTA. Undoubtedly, the Mobility Aids Centre boasts a history and pedigree many dealers would envy.

But stepping into the mobility showroom it is immediately clear to see the business is anything but old-fashioned. From the modern and airy layout of the shop floor and professional enthusiasm of staff talking clients through products, the business appears as fresh as any and years of experience seems to have taught staff how to nail the customer experience. As if to confirm this, the dealer was highly commended in the most recent set of Motability Awards thanks to its customer service score. The question to ask then is just how has the business achieved such longevity and kept up with the pace of the market over the last 40 years?

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There is no short answer. But we can begin to get an idea of how the company has kept itself ahead of the game just by looking around its 15,000 square foot site. They key thing to observe is the Mobility Aids Centre is not just a product showroom. It has impressive – and tidy – stock and servicing areas and all the elements you would expect of a quality mobility operation. But looking beyond that, it’s clear that the business is much more than just a retailer, and perhaps this is where the secret to its longevity lies.

The company is in-fact made up of two arms, which include Amilly International – an importer of unique international mobility products. It also has a separate building on-site which the company hires out to wheelchair services for their assessments and also donates to charities and manufacturers who need meeting space. What’s more, the space, which has been fitted with an adapted kitchen and bathroom, features an accessible gym where classes are held for members of the community.

The extent to which the Mobility Aids Centre ‘gives back’ to the community has landed the pair with a civic award. Jason, who is chairman for Disability Peterborough, explains that for the last few decades the business has established a solid reputation and become involved with its customers. He says: “On top of the retail side of things we’re also giving a bit back with the fact that the offices are there for people and groups to use. We do a lot of work with all sorts of different people and charities in Peterborough.”

While an award recognising the community work is nice to receive, the real importance of it is that it shows the business is doing something else aside from retail. In a very competitive market it is important to set yourself apart and in every sector businesses are now having to diversify themselves to survive.

Jason says the additional edge and offerings they have makes them “that little bit different”. “We’re often dealing with different groups of people, whether it’s a health authority, charity or the day-to-day customer. It puts us into lots of different places and now we’re involved with the council a bit more. We can all sell a commode and there are so many [dealers] that just spend their lives selling scooters. But I think it just makes us that little bit different.”

Agreeing, Dave notes how it is the seemingly smaller things that help set the Mobility Aids Centre apart. It has an on-site secure garden area so the children of people having assessments can stay occupied. The firm has a community-hub feel about it and while lots of businesses strive to be the centre of their communities, few have paid as much attention to detail as the Peterborough retailer.

But not ones to lose their focus, Jason and Dave also invite the industry’s manufacturers to use their on-site space. Some of the top suppliers use it for their monthly meetings and for companies who are based further out, it is a central area meet buyers and area sales managers. The likes of Invacare have done product launches and Electric Mobility recently held training sessions at the centre. On top of that, the business lets manufacturers have things delivered to the site where orders can be unloaded and shipped off again. The central location is a blessing for the Mobility Aids Centre and making clever use of the geography of the area has helped the firm maintain strong relationships with suppliers.

It is worth noting however, that the Mobility Aids Centre has not had an unblemished past and any business knows that to progress it has to take risks from which it can learn. The company once opened a store in Trowbridge after buying another firm and attempted to replicate what it had in Peterborough. The shop did not enjoy the same level of success and was subsequently closed but the bosses learnt lessons that would prove valuable to the longevity of the core business.

Jason comments: “I think one of the things you learn is that you can do it here and you can do it well. You can’t chop yourself into 10 different pieces and expect it to be the same. Here, sometimes I’ll get asked to go down to the showroom and look after a customer. If the shop is 150 miles away that doesn’t happen. All of our staff have got the authority to make a decision to an extent. But they might come up here looking for reassurance or if they need something else we can go down and sort it. There might be a problem and we can sort it here and now and it’s finished. There’s nothing gurgling underneath and that’s important.”

Maintaining the personal touch in a family business that becomes split between branches can be a challenge. While some in the sector have achieved it, Jason notes that even in a single-site business, it can be hard to maintain when bosses are snowed under by paperwork, especially since the GDPR changes that came into force recently. He says he has recently had his hands tied having to take care of health and safety, FCA, ISO and website alongside the new GDPR work.

The downside of a family business means that things like paperwork and audits can have a large impact on firms when it means managers are kept in their offices, unable to be on the shop floor making sales and improving customer relations. The upside is that the family element means secure succession and longevity are more likely. Looking ahead however, while Jason’s two daughters still work within the family business, one is a dancer and the other is a beauty therapist and says – semi-seriously – that the site could eventually become a beauty salon and dance studio. Succession then, even in family businesses, is by no means guaranteed.

Dave adds that the business could indeed change given the “nice site and its facilities” and says his grandchildren are entrepreneurial. Business nous and entrepreneurship appears to run through the family. He says: “I think it gets more entrepreneurial as it goes further down the line. I’ve had different businesses before this one. I had an engineering fabrication business and messed about with things for the hospital. But I jacked all that in and started this.”

Having worked in other industries, Dave knows just how unique the mobility sector is. Entering it early on, both he and Jason have been witness to a fair few changes in the market, which has taught them how to adapt. This kind of experience cannot be bought and as one of the first operators, the Mobility Aids Centre was able to get a head start in the market with suppliers.

Dave says: “I can remember we used to look after Stephen Hawking when his batteries were glass in wooden boxes. That takes you back a day or two. We’ve seen the coming of scooters and remember them when they were a piece of wood with a window wiper motor stuck on the front. We helped Invacare to start out in the UK on our front yard. When Invacare were manufacturing by Shannon Airport they shipped products over here where we had a 40 foot container and we’d sell them from this site. Then they stared to have their own reps. We’ve seen a lot.”

But after all the business has seen over the time it has been trading, it still admits, like most other traditional firms in the sector, that the internet has undoubtedly been the most significant change to have come about. For Jason, the internet has aided a transition from a market full of generally honest and scrupulous dealers to a new generation of sellers with different retail tactics including fake discounting.

“That high pressure sales approach has come around a bit more instead of perhaps what used to be a bit more of a cottagey industry. Also, the clients becoming internet savvy and we’ve got 80-year-old people coming in and saying ‘I can buy this on this website for £2 less’.”

A savvier customer brings its own challenges and bricks and mortar dealers are all too aware of the frustration that comes with clients viewing products in-store before heading online to buy it. Dave says that customers will often do this but then ask the dealer to repair the product after assembling it incorrectly. The issue with products sold online he says, is that they come in pieces in boxes.

Jason believes this kind of practice and the rise of the internet seller will continue to challenge the market. He comments: “I think it’s crazy that anybody can go and buy a container of products. The world is small now. They’re not having the other third of the container full of spare parts, they’re just getting the machines shipped out. And when it all goes wrong they don’t bother with parts. There’s no CE marking and people are changing the names of things and there’s no documentation for that.”

For Dave, traditional retailers just need to be “good at what they do” rather than try and combat it. “You’ve got to do your very best and get a customer that says to themselves, ‘it’s definitely worth going back’.”

Another way of adapting to the change Jason believes, is adapting your offering in a similar way to some other industries. He says: “It’s happening in the car world where you’re going to make your money by looking after somebody into the long-term future. Your workshops and service bays will be where the longevity is. Maybe if you’re lucky, somebody buys something off the internet, brings it in for repair, and you keep the customer.”

In the march of progression mobility retailers can’t simply keep their heads buried and try and carry on as they are. With the coming of the internet, the dealers who have survived and expanded are those who have embraced it and incorporated it into their own arsenals. Aside from the usual practices of using social media and an easy-to-use website, the Mobility Aids Centre has not underestimated the importance of customer reviews, which are especially effective in this industry.

Making up an important part of its ‘customer face’, the Mobility Aids Centre utilises reviews as best as it can, asking clients to submit when they purchase online. Consistently posting positive and genuine reviews on social media builds a strong image of the brand and instils trust among would-be clients and their sons and daughters. This is important considering stories of unscrupulous rogue traders consistently make the headlines.

While some bosses in the industry would proclaim to have ‘seen it all’, both Jason and Dave know that it will be important to stay abreast of yet more changes that the market could bring. Looking ahead, Jason predicts that a likely change could be service centres popping up to look after customers as opposed to traditional retail outlets.

He adds: “And eventually, will somebody will find a big enough set of boots to police our industry? To look after all the people who are trying to do the right things, not just old dealers, but also new dealers popping up and doing the right things. The insurance side of things will get much heavier I think. And it’s stopping that idea of people like Amazon going out there and doing whatever they want and dictating to suppliers. People do need local things but whether they’ll be showrooms I don’t know. Maybe we’ll see a system like Argos where something’s seen and you can come and collect it but you might be able to get it fixed somewhere or adjusted there.”

Concluding, Dave says that there a lot of large players closing in the mobility sector. He draws on the mass closures of Lloyds Pharmacy branches but maintains that mobility equipment dealers who remain slow and steady and prioritise giving a good service will see through the challenges.

The Mobility Aids Centre is a prime example of how the oldest businesses can find themselves leading the market if they run with an ethos of adapting and staying diverse. Chatting to the duo, it seems that thinking outside the box to keep an edge on competitors has been the best strategy for ensuring longevity. With the changes the market is expecting in the coming years the tactic will be put to the test after which it will become clear how sustainable the model is. If the last three decades are anything to go by, it’s likely The Mobility Aids Centre will still be a key retailer, unless of course, it becomes a beauty salon…

Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas

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