There are few members of the mobility sector with as much wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience as Dave Thompson, boss of the Warrington Disability Partnership. The group’s trading arm holds a unique place in the market, designed only to support its parent charity rather than make profit. But the model Thompson and his team have pioneered holds lessons the whole industry can learn from…
One of the most well-known figures in the world of mobility, Dave Thompson, chief executive of the Warrington Disability Partnership (WDP), has spent the last 27 years developing one of the country’s leading disability support organisations. His group encompasses a range of services and events for disabled people, including everything from employment support to accessible holidays and mobility retail outlets.
The operation now covers most of the North West and is run from a central facility in Warrington, which acts as a one-stop-shop for all things mobility. Arriving at WDP’s HQ, it is immediately clear that the complex is a busy, pulsating mobility hub, charged with a community buzz and is evidently somewhere many disabled people visit regularly.
Thompson, who is a wheelchair-user himself, following an American football injury at the age of 31, operates an organisation like none other in the UK. Based on a similar model he first saw in Denmark in 1982, the WDP is a replica of the facility, encompassing three showrooms, a Shopmobility service, on-site workshop, café, community learning centre and more.
While many mobility businesses have pursued the one-stop-shop model, there are very few, if any, which can boast such a comprehensive offering. In recent months the market has seen the entry of some exciting propositions, including high tech showrooms and advice and signposting hubs, but WDP is yet to come up against something with a more diverse and expansive offering and network.
Spearheading the WDP’s mobility offering is its retail arm — the Disability Trading Company (DTC) — set up seven years ago as another string to the group’s bow. Headed up by Thompson’s son, Gavin Thompson, and nestled within a respected organisation connected to hundreds of thousands of end-users, the DTC holds an envious position in the market.
“So many businesses focus on just one channel or line, for example just scooters or chairs, and if that dries up, where do they go? Retail is changing”
Dave Thompson explains that last year WDP attended 155 community events where it engaged with 220,000 people, who got information about the trading company. “How many business go out there to 155 events and engage?” he asks. “They don’t, it’s a totally different model. That’s our difference, we’re very much focused on the community.”
While there are plenty of ‘unique’ mobility distributors in the UK, there are few as broad or diverse as the DTC. Niche areas, untapped by mainstream retailers, are part of the company’s rich offering. For example, its showrooms feature disability sex aids and extensive information on sex and disability.
There are few dealers which operate in the same way as the DTC too. Its primary function is to financially support the WDP charity, which immediately sets it apart from a lot of other retailers. While Thompson admits it would be “foolish” not to see the DTC as a business with overheads and targets just like any other commercial body, he notes that the trading arm is built to sustain the charity, whose goal is to support disabled people.
The aim of the WDP’s trading arm therefore, is intrinsically linked with that of the organisation’s charity. While there is no shortage of ethical distributors in the game for the benefit of the end-user, the obligation on the DTC to put the customer before itself, puts it in a unique position.
Thompson explains: “The difference we’ve got with the DTC is that it’s owned by a charity, it’s not got shareholders and we’re very much value-driven and about ethical trading. For instance, we won’t upsell, our staff aren’t commission-based and 85% of our staff are disabled people, so in many cases the customer can see the person selling the equipment is using it themselves.”
Of course, avoiding upselling and other traditional sales techniques is bound to limit turnover to a degree. But for Thompson, these methods are not critical for a successful business, and the group’s trading strategy is backed up by its numbers. When the DTC first began trading seven years ago its turnover was less than £40,000, Thompson estimates, and it has now grown to nearly £900,000. It has managed “rapid” year-on-year expansion — although growth has slowed marginally in the last two years — and as such the DTC is increasingly important to the sustainability of the wider organisation. In fact, the charity’s revenues have dropped while the business arm has increased.
“As a wheelchair user for the last 28 years, I’m wanting to buy a product that I want, not just that I need. I think that’s the market that the mobility companies have got to get into”
Thompson says that looking at the charity model 10 years ago, at least 80% of its funding came from statutory services, whereas today a maximum of 40% of its income is from that source. “If you look forward 10 years, I think we will probably be down to 10% reliant on income from statutory services. We would then be looking at the rest of the 90% coming from the trading arm and our fundraising. There is definitely scope for expansion. We’ve got a new service launching in springtime that we feel will be another critical part of the organisation. It builds upon the equipment recycling side that we do and builds upon our relationships and contracts. We’re really starting to polish off the business arm.”
Part of the DTC’s turnover growth has come from its community café, which is far from a trivial add-on, but is a profitable part of the trading arm and adds to the overall experience and appeal of the retail outlet in Warrington. It has grown by 400% in the last four years and is one of the things making the DTC “much more than just a retail outlet”. And for Thompson, offering more than just mobility products not only gives dealers an edge over their competitors, but is an essential adaptation businesses must make in the changing retail landscape.
The most high-flying mobility retailers in the market know that they must diversify to excel. They understand it is about the in-store experience, the advice and signposting element and the community hub aspect of an outlet. Remaining a static, lateral business, holds risks while the ones adapting and diversifying are the most successful, says Thompson, whose group can draw on 27 different disability services and change focus when it needs to.
“So many businesses focus on just one channel or line, for example just scooters or chairs, and if that dries up, where do they go? Retail is changing. If you walk into Debenhams you’ll see there aren’t many Debenhams products, there are franchisees and shop-in-shops. There are some wonderful business models out there.
“On the mobility side you’ve got companies like Ross Care and Ableworld — some really big organisations and successful models. NRS Healthcare is a big partner of ours and they’re morphing too. Twenty years ago, NRS was just providing a narrow base but now they have much more and probably sell as much product on Amazon as they do anywhere else. A big supporter of our charity side is the owner of a whitegoods company called ao.com, and he’s offered to help us create a portal to sell mobility equipment online. We’re all changing.”
But as fast as retail is changing, a portion of dealers and suppliers, Thompson feels, are not keeping pace with product development. He notes that the WDP has connectivity with more than 1,000 end-users a week, many of whom are asking for the latest, cutting-edge mobility products, but for Thompson, many lines “have always been quite static” and fail to capitalise on trends.
He says: “If you look at the mobility market, as a wheelchair user for the last 28 years, I’m wanting to buy a product that I want, not just that I need. I think that’s the market that the mobility companies have got to get into. We had Mountain Trike visit here the other day, and I looked at it and thought that’s something I don’t need, but I want it. I think that’s the type of movement we need in the market.”
Who then, will drive these changes? Innovative and specialist companies led by wheelchair users, such as Stuart Dunne’s Cyclone Mobility and Vincent Ross’s Da Vinci Mobility, are already pushing the envelope when it comes to market trends, Thompson believes. He also cites Steve Kennedy, commercial director of NRS Healthcare, as someone flying the flag for the effort to bring equipment to the market that people want, not just need. “I think he’s right and you can’t stress it enough,” says Thompson.
“We’ve got to start designing mobility equipment that people want, not just need. Products can become sexy and don’t have to just be clinical anymore.”
Despite pushing for more attractive equipment, Thompson is fully aware of all the new technology consistently being applied to products in the sector. “Assistive technology is going to change the world,” he proclaims.
In the coming weeks WDP will be creating a smart flat on-site which will be completely kitted out with assistive technology and will act as a showroom. Thompson explains it will feature assistive living solutions like Amazon Alexa and other “gizmos”. He says that nowadays, elderly and disabled people want to stay in their own houses rather than leave the family home, and as such groups like NAEP (National Association for Equipment Providers), local authorities and the NHS are shifting their focus onto assistive tech.
For Thompson, in spite of the frustrations with the sector, it is a good time to be in the mobility industry and advancements in things like assistive tech are creating exciting new avenues. All the gripes surrounding unscrupulous traders and slow-moving segments of the market have not detracted from Thompson’s enthusiasm for the industry: “I think more new specialists are going to come into the market. The mobility equipment world has got to start picking its game up and let’s enjoy the ride, because it’s going to be exciting.”
The industry is packed with zeal, which is excellent news for the whole mobility supply chain. With luminaries like Dave Thompson centring retail models on core ethical-focused values, the sector is working to boost its public image, which is too often tarnished by unscrupulous traders. What’s more, top-down enthusiasm for the industry among suppliers is likely to help accelerate product development and technological change. The important thing now is for key market players to not get bogged down in price wars at the expense of their customer service and to also ensure close co-operation with suppliers to help drive innovation for the benefit of the end-user. Perhaps then, everyone really will be able to ‘enjoy the ride’.