We hear it time and again in the mobility sector – ‘this industry has been slower to progress than other retail segments’. For the most part, it is, unfortunately, probably true.
There are plenty of examples of innovative, technologically superior retailers in mobility. But there are arguably more instances of businesses that have failed to keep up with the march of modern retail, holding onto traditional processes and ways of thinking.
While there are individuals pushing hard to change the public’s stereotypes, as it stands, the typical image of the dark, cluttered mobility shop prevails in most of society.
It would be refreshing for any professional to step into Lifestyle and Mobility’s flagship store in Southend-on-Sea. It is no exaggeration to say that the dealer represents the razor edge of the spearhead of mobility retail.
Its modern approach to retail and insistence on progression has inspired a number of local businesses and helped fuel the development of the South East mobility scene.
Situated in the busy Victoria Shopping Centre, Lifestyle and Mobility’s generously sized showroom is one of five stores in the portfolio and immediately stands out from the rest in its collection, and indeed the wider industry.
The lighting on the ground floor shop is more akin to an Apple store than a mobility aids dealer and causes the high-spec scooters at the entrance to glimmer, enticing passers-by to come in and browse.
The layout of the shop is such that it feels crisp, ordered and relatively minimalist considering the huge range of products squeezed into the space. The immaculately turned out store is the result of a period of meticulous planning, execution and hefty investment by Lifestyle and Mobility’s senior team.
Behind the operation is owner Aaron Sverdloff and business development manager Darren Macey. Recently, the pair introduced a number of key improvements and upgrades across the business and the result so far is increased sales every month since. Some of the introductions include a brand new EPOS and automated stock system, loyalty cards, new apprentices, IT and operational upgrades and a back-of-house office overhaul.
Surprisingly, some of the most noticeable outcomes are the result of the smaller modifications. The new loyalty cards for example, are hugely popular with customers and have helped to develop greater loyalty among clients. Importantly, they allow the business to collect data about the products being sold which means it can be more proactive and targeted in its marketing.
When it comes to winter for instance, the retailer will be able to remind its customers of the various aids that can make the season safer and more comfortable. Additionally, the EPOS set-up, which features a small customer-facing screen on the till, can prompt customers with upsells for their purchase, similar to a digital catalogue.
Macey says that the ability to harvest information and data is having the largest impact on the store. “We’re much better at gathering data and that’s going to be an ongoing thing. The new computer system gathers so much information but there’s only so much you can take in and deal with at one time. Hopefully for the next summer season it should be fully operational. It will even do automatic ordering, which will be golden.
“Relying on humans to remember can be tough and lead to frustrations. You might have something as simple as a walking stick ferrule and all of a sudden you’ve run out and you’re losing sales and giving our customer the opportunity to go elsewhere. We’re then inviting our customer to go to the competition and give them an opportunity to be better than us, which we don’t want to do.
“That’s where the till system is good on prompting us about smaller products. We can set minimum and maximum stock levels to trigger automatic orders. We’re really excited to get the system finalised because stock control and ordering systems are so important.”
Another important upgrade is Lifestyle and Mobility’s new digital diary system, which can be accessed by staff while out on the road. Appointments and jobs are colour coded and marked and provide customer details and address directions at the touch of a screen. The best thing about the new system is that it is a free tool available on Google.
Macey comments: “It’s all about saving time, for example when you’re going to do an assessment and trying to find a customer’s house. What happens in a lot of mobility stores is that everyone is reactive but for us it’s all about the information. The system also means we’ve got evidence when we have to go back to a supplier with a parts issue or for chasing up orders.”
Loyalty cards, automated ordering and digital calendar systems are not new to retail, or even mobility, but the way in which the firm collects and uses information and has combined a range of features and techniques gives the Southend store a unique feeling. The key to its model, Sverdloff says, lies in the details.
“Attention to detail is always something I’ve looked at carefully. When I first joined the company I managed the Leigh-on-Sea branch. The way the shop was presented was terrible. It was all handwritten branding, mess and chaos. I stripped the shop down, I’d be cleaning the skirting boards, making sure staff were positioned and ensuring everything was consistent.
“I naturally had an attention to detail and understanding of how things needed to be presented. That went from strength to strength. Darren came along and he’s exactly the same, maybe even more aggressive when it comes to attention to detail. This store has been our flagship in the way that we’re retailing but some of the plans for our new store will take it to the next level again.”
Marrying modern retail with mobility experience
It would be unfair to say that Lifestyle and Mobility is the only outfit in the industry applying cutting-edge processes and techniques. In fact, there are now more forward-thinking concepts than ever before as new blood moves into the sector with bright ideas for capitalising on the expanding healthcare market. Lifestyle and Mobility itself takes inspiration from certain retailers and both Macey and Sverdloff respect the likes of Middletons, whose plush showrooms are the envy of the industry.
But the pair believe that to make a true success of the industry, a business needs to marry a great retail experience with unbeatable product knowledge and a specialist service that is seldom found at more generalist outfits. The collapse of Betterlife Healthcare and The Unlimited Company, which boasted supreme retail experiences, illustrate just how difficult it is to strike the right balance.
Macey comments: “There are retailers in this industry doing a fantastic job. They understand retail. But the difference with us is that we’re specialists. Some are essentially good retailers that have taken it to the next level but because of the amount of stores they’re opening they’re going to struggle to get specialist staff. That means they’re limited to selling only basic products and it has to be about volume.”
Sverdloff adds: “You need a high-level assessment team that knows the product inside out but it’s also the back-up you can provide. We’ve always had good engineers, especially at Basildon, where our head office is. We have a huge workshop there in what used to be an Argos.”
The workshop at Basildon, which sits in a space above the showroom, has all the equipment a mobility engineer could possibly want. It boasts spray booths, rolling roads and heat sensors so technicians can detect the heat being produced by motors. But the real ace up Lifestyle and Mobility’s sleeve is the engineers running the workshop, Sverdloff believes.
He proudly notes: “They have every single tool at their disposal at Basildon and our other sites have equally good technicians. We’ve head hunted recently for our Potters Bar workshop and they’ve secured two top engineers.
“Basildon has the space and expertise and their true strength there is the technical side. One of our top engineers there is now a director of the company and manages the store. Then you’ve got the workshop manager, who’s only in his 20s but there can’t be anyone in the industry with an all-round better engineering knowledge. He’s a great asset to the company.”
While enjoying such a high standard of staff is certainly a bonus for Lifestyle and Mobility, it naturally means that recruitment – and therefore expansion – is somewhat problematic. Sverdloff cedes that finding staff that match up to his requirements is one of the main factor limiting the business’s growth. Management is careful not to grow beyond what it feels is sustainable and open shops that cannot provide the same service and quality as its core business.
Macey explains: “If it was easy to find staff we’d have double the amount of stores. It all has to be done on a people-basis. You can’t just interview 10 people and take the best one – those 10 people might not be good enough.”
Sverdloff says that the pitfalls of hiring a member of staff that does not live up to company standards can have a severe impact on business. “It’s very hard to find people who are technically able and also understand the importance of customer service.
“We understand we’ve got to be a certain level because if we’re not then bad word-of-mouth gets around like wild fire. It just takes one bad egg or someone not doing their job quite right to have catastrophic consequences.”
Macey says that when a customer comes into store, staff have just one opportunity to impress them and prove that they know what they are talking about. If the customer leaves with a bad experience then not only has the retailer lost that individual, but probably also a handful of others. Macey says that it can be “exhausting” to be on top of your game all the time, especially when it comes to difficult customers, but recognises how important it is.
One of the solutions Lifestyle and Mobility has found to the issue of finding staff who meet its criteria is to use apprentices. While they demand initial investment, training and time, apprentices can be moulded by a company’s thinking and values. The business has found its trial with apprentices to be highly successful and plans to incorporate them into the model in the future.
A step-change in mobility retail is coming
The changes ushered in at Lifestyle and Mobility in recent months are part of what Sverdloff regards as a “purple patch” for the company. But the business is far from done yet and plans to shift up the gears once again when it opens a brand new superstore at the beginning of autumn.
Macey and Sverdloff are clearly excited about the chance to apply all their learnings from Southend and open Lifestyle and Mobility’s new flagship in Harlow, which they say will take mobility retailing to a whole new level.
Sverdloff says that the store layout will follow the trend of themed pods where recliners and beds will be showcased in faux living rooms and bedrooms, complete with plants and lamps. Backlighting will bring out the best in high-end and specialist equipment for active users, including top-spec carbon wheelchairs and all the various options and power add-ons. To top it off, the multi-level store will be connected by a homelift and will feature a built-in car boot to display various folding scooters and hoist systems.
Sverdloff explains: “It’s not just a case of having the best products but also displaying them effectively. We may have graphics on the wall marketing suppliers and maybe some unique graffiti. We don’t know yet but we’ll play with ideas to really make it a cool area. There’s nothing in Harlow like that.
“Customers have had to travel far away or go to wheelchair service providers, which aren’t glamorous. We want to change that and give them a real experience. Wheelchairs are cool. There are some amazing products so why not sell them in a really cool environment. It’s creating that desirability factor, it’s not just about clinical function. There’s a lot more retailing has to offer.”
Aside from the glitzy features, the Harlow store has all the key makings of a successful site. It has ramped access, is close to a multi-story car park, high street and shopping centre and as a former British Heart Foundation furniture outlet, has plenty of room.
The corner unit has glass frontage, disabled toilets opposite and is directly next to the central bus station. Importantly, Harlow will not just be a retail experience. Macey is conscious of having a nice store that only shows the kind of products people would tend to buy online.
By all accounts, Harlow seems like it has the potential to mark a step-change in the industry. The prospect of a truly experiential mobility superstore combined with the technical knowledge of a dealer as highly regarded as Lifestyle and Mobility is definitely exciting. The store will certainly bring change to the mobility scene in the South East and to Harlow, Sverdloff believes.
“Walking around Harlow you see lots of dated scooters and then all of a sudden you’ll start seeing flashy equipment out there. We’re going to be championing the Motability scheme and high quality products in a town that’s never seen it before. Big products. Big location. We hope it will ‘wow’ the people of Harlow and draw people into the town.”
Sverdloff and Macey are confident in the Harlow project and their proven track record in retail bodes well. Shops like that of Lifestyle and Mobility are perhaps something mobility dealers across the country would aspire to.
But such an investment is of course unrealistic for many smaller businesses who do not have the luxury of large capital or may simply not be interested in grand visions. That said, Lifestyle and Mobility’s experience proves that it is often the small, inexpensive tweaks that make the biggest difference.
Far from feeling left trailing in the dust, there are plenty of retailers who will be enthused by Lifestyle and Mobility’s unfolding plans and will be doubly motivated to reinvigorate their own businesses.
That can only be good news for an industry trying to reinvent itself and smash the stereotypes that have evolved over the years. In this way, leading lights like the South East dealer are playing their part in helping mobility to catch up with other modern retailers, and that is something that should be celebrated by peers and competitors alike.