Opening on the doorstep of some of the market’s retail kingpins, Love Mobility’s launch success proves that the day of the independent mobility dealer is far from over.
On paper, Love Mobility should never have stood a chance. The Shropshire-based independent dealer opened around a year ago in the backyard of some of the industry’s most formidable retail forces in bitterly difficult high street conditions.
With the likes of Easy Living Mobility and Ableworld boasting flagship stores in the vicinity, founder Rob Wilcock admits that opening on the doorstep of such established multiples was always going to be a challenge.
Yet 12 months on, he is the proud owner of two modern showrooms and is preparing the business to open a third and fourth site.
The obvious question to ask is how has Love Mobility muscled itself into such a competitive arena and not only managed to survive, but thrive and establish a reputation as a local go-to equipment provider?
Love Mobility, it would seem, has success in its blood. Wilcock is a familiar face in the industry, having worked on both the manufacturing side at Pride Mobility and on the dealer side helping to pioneer Ability Plus alongside current owner Graham Johnson.
Throughout his career, Wilcock has been able to combine a fierce passion for the industry with wide experience to gain a toolkit and knowledge base ideally suited to setting up his own firm.
The key to carving out your own space on the mobility stage, Wilcock says, is not to get caught up in what other businesses are doing but to play to your strengths. It could be your buying power or the size of your showroom, for example. But for Wilcock it has been about selling a service rather than a solely material offering.
“What we’ve tried to do is stick to what we feel is important,” he explains. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of doing it, it’s just what you’re more comfortable doing. There will be stressful times but if you enjoy it the customers will sense that you enjoy and feel appreciated.
“You could have an aircraft hangar and still not have the one item the customer wants. It’s better to have well trained staff, a good-looking showroom, the main things people ask for and enough brochures and knowledge”
“There are always challenges, but it’s trying to keep people as happy as we can and still make a living. Margins have been squeezed throughout the sector and it’s a challenge that everyone faces, from manufacturers to every dealer.”
Among his business’s strengths, Wilcock counts varied experience, deep knowledge and a desire to do right by the customer. He cites ‘the grandmother test’ many dealers will be familiar with as one of the main tools which has helped Love Mobility quickly gain a good reputation in the community.
Small details and a personal touch are important. Sometimes, staff do not ask enough questions in the rush to make a sale and so it is a strong point of focus for Wilcock. Similarly, phone lines are redirected to management’s personal mobile numbers.
Unsurprisingly, Wilcock also regards staff and recruitment as one of the pillars of success in independent retail. Recalling his experience at Ability Plus, he says that dealers can find staff in the strangest of places outside of the mobility sector.
Good managers can pass on equipment knowledge to rookies but Wilcock says you cannot teach the warmness and kindness required in this sector.
“If you find people with the right skill set and intelligence, the rest you can train. It might mean you take a bit of time with them and initially they won’t be making you money. But that’s not the consideration.
“If they’re good at their job then the money will come. It’s about investing in people and being patient with people. They might make mistakes but as long as you put enough checks and measures in place it will work.”
The problems come when scaling up. Bosses need to be white hot on their team management and Wilcock notes it can be very easy to overstretch when opening multiple sites in the course of a year.
Challenges include hiring staff, training them and the quality you need and then to monitor that ongoing quality to make sure there is quality assurance. Wilcock says it can be difficult to manage as a firm may have some very knowledgeable bosses who know a lot about the industry, but they cannot be in five places at once.
Wilcock notes: “You’ve got to put the right people in place before you move onto the next thing. It was never my intention to open two stores in 12 months.
“Ability Plus has been very successful, but I was able to take shortcuts this time because there were things I didn’t know the first time round. That’s why Love Mobility has grown quickly – because I know what works and what doesn’t.”
While Wilcock and his wife, Jan Wilcock, did not intend on growing at the pace they have, increasing footfall and a lack of space to hold items dictated that the pair expand. However, the duo have been careful not to waver from their initial strategy of organic growth or follow what its nearby competitors are doing.
He says: “What the likes of Ableworld and Easy Living Mobility do, they do very well. We just do it a little bit differently. There’s enough business there, if it’s done correctly, for everyone.
“There’s no need to be cutting each other’s throats. I think the industry has taken a hammering over the last 10 years where it has been a case of: ‘I can sell it £10 cheaper than him’. Something has to give and it’s usually going to be service.”
As a former recruiter, Wilcock has worked in industries where margins have been squeezed and service has been sacrificed. He believes that under the cost pressures, the mobility industry is evolving and this is most evident among internet traders.
Compared to the upheaval caused by the dawn of online mobility retailers over a decade ago, Wilcock believes the market has begun to level out and find a natural balance.
“It used to be that retailers would run scared of the internet guys. But now you can see that the likes of CareCo are opening retail shops. They know that a good service is important and that opening a retail shop isn’t a backward step as people once thought.
“There will always be a place for a £99 wheelchair from Amazon and I don’t begrudge people who want to do that.”
In fact, Wilcock thinks that nowadays, bricks-and-mortar dealers have less reason to be fearful of online sellers than they previously did. Such thin margins, he says, can make for risky trading conditions where just one large run of product returns can seriously impact on a company’s bottom line.
He notes that people are realising that mobility is as much about service as it is about equipment and ‘box-shifters’ – even the ones with the heaviest firepower – are gradually being forced to evolve.
That being said, independent dealers on the high street have more than their fair share of challenges. For companies like Love Mobility, Wilcock says that innovation is one of the toughest hurdles in the current climate.
Keeping on top of the latest products and getting a feel for what the public really want is tough. Customer expectations are changing as new generations enter the market and people now demand mobility aids that look more modern and sleek and boast more features.
Nevertheless, research and development is expensive, even for suppliers manufacturing in the Far East. To make a simple change on a product could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, says Wilcock – a huge investment which has to be passed onto the dealer.
“I think this is the big difference between us and some of the multiples – I live, I breathe, I think, I dream about my company. I’m sure a lot of the independents are exactly the same”
New innovations take time to come to the market therefore, which can be frustrating for dealers with a raft of customers demanding ever more modern equipment. One of the main things manufacturers can do to help dealers out in today’s market, Wilcock says, is to offer configurable products.
He uses the example of scooters that can be upsold with solid tyres to help dealers claw back margin and add revenue.
Perhaps one of the greatest enemies to a small mobility shop in the last 10-years has been themselves. Many stores in the sector have been likened in the past to small, dark caves, cluttered with equipment.
While Wilcock admits that there are still some businesses adhering to the old stereotype, he is excited by how many are breaking away and modernising.
He comments: “There are some guys out there doing some really good work and you walk into their stores and you can feel it, you can see it in their staff, they’re motivated and they’re keeping on top of the latest developments in retail.”
Wilcock continues: “I’ve deliberately set out my stores not to have too many smalls in them because I don’t want them to be cluttered. In this day and age, most items out there you can get within a few days. A modern mobility shop with all the major accounts will probably have access to somewhere in the region of 15,000 product lines.
“You could have an aircraft hangar and still not have the one item the customer wants. It’s better to have well trained staff, a good-looking showroom, the main things people ask for and enough brochures and knowledge.”
On the other hand, Wilcock would certainly not shun a spacious showroom with room for lots of high-ticket items. He does not have that luxury but is grateful instead for good store locations and reliable staff. Those luxuries, he says, are his strengths.
But not one to be left behind, Wilcock has recently invested in modern software, a fresh EPOS system and a new van.
Despite its modest beginnings, Love Mobility is on a sound trajectory and has grown quicker than expected. Wilcock does not want to put any limits on the company, given the pace of expansion, but is conscious that he needs to be careful when scaling to ensure growth is sustainable. The ceiling, he says, will ultimately be decided by how well he is able to train and prepare his staff.
“I don’t want to be managing 10 stores. It’s not that I can’t, I don’t want to. If I get to a point where we’re not able to do things the way we do it now, that’s how I’ll know we’ve gone too far.
“I would rather have five excellent stores than 20 mediocre. I won’t set a limit but my limits are realistic. If we end up with five stores then that’s great but if I feel we’re growing too quickly then I’ll hit the brakes.”
Aside from new stores, Wilcock is aiming to diversify and is launching a new proposition into a slightly different market sector encompassing a new brand and website. Creating a modern mobility offering is certainly something that excites Wilcock, who says through Love Mobility he has found his passion again.
“It’s reinvigorated me and I feel really good about what I’m doing. I feel good about where we are as a company and I enjoy it. It makes the job so much easier. I think this is the big difference between us and some of the multiples – I live, I breathe, I think, I dream about my company. I’m sure a lot of the independents are exactly the same.”
Wilcock is clearly enthused about Love Mobility and its future in the market. While his original thoughts were that theoretically, the business should not have worked, if we look at factors like Wilcock’s enthusiasm and knowledge, his team’s expertise and his career-long focus on customer service, it is quite clear that the dealership always stood an excellent chance right from conception.