The e-commerce market has become a huge part of the retail space in the United Kingdom and across the world. It adds ease to everyone’s shopping habits and in a lot of cases, allows people to get the most value out of a purchase.
However, looking at the mobility retail market specifically, online sales have received some animosity to say the least, causing a few high-street businesses problems when trying to give their customers the best service they can.
In speaking to dealers up and down the country, it seems to be the common denominator that while online retail is welcome in one form or another, it does both the high-street retail business and the customer a simultaneous disservice.
In some cases, the customer is looking online first and realising they can get a product for a cheaper price than what they could in-store and despite seemingly getting a good deal, further down the line, the customer finds that the specific product wasn’t right for them.
This is where the importance of the personal consultation comes into play. Countless dealers put this relationship at the top of their agenda when making sure a product is right for the customer, and many of them even put it ahead of making and closing the actual sale.
It’s something that cannot be done online which is where many within the industry believe the first and biggest problem arises – customers going away with products that are not right for them in the first place and therefore do not solve the mobility or accessibility problem they have or even make it worse.
In conversation with Fortuna Mobility duo Elaine Ferguson, mobility manager, and Seb Bavetta, director, they explained their reasoning behind their apprehensive approach to online sales.
Bavetta said: “We see ourselves as adding value in terms of advice and expertise. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with selling online, obviously, but that is not how we see ourselves.”
Ferguson continued: “We’ve seen far too many people who have made very expensive and dangerous mistakes and even sometimes over the smaller items like a walker or a rollator, even that, can be dangerous.
“People are just not aware of the choices available to them. Mistakes can also cause accidents, long term problems and be very expensive and detrimental to the person using it.”
Bavetta then commented on how although its online offering is important with regards to design, accessibility and product research, the personal consultation will always come out on top.
He said: “Our website has been recently been redesigned and what Elaine says comes through in this. We did not want to simply create a catalogue online. What we’ve done is to provide information to educate people and custumers on different types of equipment and accessories.
“For instance our page on walking sticks does not list twenty walking sticks with prices but includes information to inform the reader. Our approach with our website, makes it more customer-centred rather than product-centred. So, although we include lots of product categories, we also have pages on medical conditions, so for example, if you have MS, it informs on what sort of equipment might help.”
He continued: “The customer isn’t necessarily someone who wants a walking stick, but someone who has had a stroke and needs advice on how to cope with their new disabilities. We are using it as a shop window rather than what a traditional online shop would be.”
Ferguson agreed, commenting on how although research helps product knowledge before a customer comes in to the store, their decision is actually often different to what they first had in mind.
It is this aspect of online retail that does help the industry though and give customers and their families a better knowledge of what they want before they enter a store, even if this is wrong and they walk out of the shop with something completely different, it is often this process and experience that helps people get their hands on the perfect product.
Ferguson explained: “Nowadays many people do a lot of research on the web before they visit us and our website provides a lot of information for them. But, their final decision is still dependent on the good advice they receive from our staff and trying out the product for themselves. Sometimes, at that point, things can change. It’s very important to try before you buy.”
As this month’s ‘Hot Topic’, the subject of e-commerce within the industry seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment. Speaking to People First Mobility’s Karen Sheppard, she gave an example of a recent encounter with a regular and loyal customer. The situation meant both the retailer and customer were put in a difficult position.
Sheppard explained: “I order from Performance Health and there›s a male urinal product which I buy in for £1.85 and retail it at £6.25. A lady came in the other day and said I want three, I said okay, that›s £18. She said, no you›re ripping me off, and this is a regular customer. She said she could get them online for a lot cheaper. I said okay but they will be really poor quality, they will be really thin, they won›t be as good quality as this.
“So she went away, she brought me one and said here you go, this is what I›ve just bought online, I›ve just paid £4.95 for three. It was a Performance Health urinal, it even had their sticker on with the code – it was absolutely identical to the ones I get.”
Sheppard continued: “How can a customer go out and buy a product 22p cheaper than what I can, and even if I sold it at what I buy it for, she could still get it cheaper. Something like that is awful, because she is a very good customer of mine.”
Concluding: “That›s where the problem lies when you’ve got the exactly the same product and people think you›ve bought two container loads worth and that still isn›t fair on us. I can›t buy 10,000 male urinals.”
It’s a problem that has continued to rage on for quite some time now, and one which Sheppard thinks will see change very soon.
Discussing the issue last year at the AMP Awards in October, a panel comprising Easy Living’s Daniel Griffiths, TPG’s Alastair Gibbs and Ability Plus’ Graham Johnson, was slightly more relaxed over the issue, but still showed concerns around some grey areas.
Gibbs said: “From my point of view, online sales are appropriate for certain lines of products. Sometimes there are better routes to the customer which means we can give those assessments, we can give the added value that other products sometimes need.”
“If somebody comes in with a scooter that they’ve bought online, do we take it on board or do we say no we don’t look after that product? We’re unsure really. We may lose a customer with regards to the fact that they may have bought that product and it may be their lifeline but at the same time our profit margin is in the selling and maintaining of the product,” Johnson went on to add.
The topic of aftercare for products bought online was more of a sensitive one for the panellists, who detailed how mobility retailers often operate to provide the best care possible for customers within the scope of their own resources.
Griffiths explained: “If somebody is bringing a product to ourselves that they haven’t purchased from us they will be looked after. Will they be looked after as quickly? Possibly not, sometimes. If we’re scheduling in our diaries, that person will probably come second to the person that’s bought from ourselves.”
However, as alluded to by the team at Fortuna Mobility, while there are challenges presented by online for mobility dealers, there is also an opportunity for dealers with unique products and skills to harness the platform in innovative new ways.
Beyond simply e-commerce, dealers are looking to the online space to help give customers more detail regarding the aftercare provided and products they sell.
Griffiths added: “I think that the internet is just a really good platform for us to showcase our business and showcase skillsets that we have. We do quite a lot of clinical, specialist equipment, so, I think that’s a good platform to showcase details.”