OPINION: Online retailers must take the lead in response to rising mobility store closures

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A raft of mobility shop closures this year has created complications for elderly customers, but waiting for the older generation to catch up with online technology is not the answer, writes Gary Braithwaite of Bayliss Mobility.

There has been a recent increase in the reporting of vulnerable people losing their independence due to mobility shop closures, with many people left feeling abandoned and helpless.

This is because a high proportion of people that require assistive technologies do not have access to the internet and are less likely to have an easy time when using an online shop. This is a huge concern, as it is vital that such people are able to access the assistive technology services they require.

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The onus is on online shops to create a platform that is accessible to all. This is a challenge that on the surface appears to be being met — we reported last month that design advances and government funding are driving the global growth of the mobility industry. But if we look locally we see more and more stories of difficulties in accessing services.

Earlier this year, a Shopmobility store in Leigh, Greater Manchester closed after 32 years of business. This left the local community without a key resource in the town. One resident, Yolande, spoke of her experience. “It feels like I have lost my independence,” she told the Leigh Journal. “I used to go to Shopmobility every week on a morning before going shopping.”

This is just one example that shows the importance of a physical space in the provision of mobility scooter hire and sales services. With products such as mobility scooters or walking aids, those that require them to get around will often come to rely on a local centre.

In this case, Leigh’s Shopmobility store was previously funded by Wigan Council. In 2011, however, £100,000 per year in local funding was cut, and the store when into private ownership. This is a familiar story for many requiring such services around the country.

At the point that local brick-and-mortar stores close down, online businesses are expected to and should step in. 

In lieu of a physical space in the town centre for those in need to browse products and get assistance, online stores must ensure they are as close a replacement as possible for that physical space. 

Such an aim may be difficult to attain though, as the sense of community that begins to exist around a shop over the years cannot be replicated online.

One aspect of online shopping that can be improved and should be expected to be of a high standard is customer service. The way in which online businesses in the assistive technology sector should move forward is using the capital saved on having a physical store to pay for a well-staffed and responsive customer service team. As previously stated, the groups of people that rely on these types of products are less likely to have access to the internet or are not comfortable with the medium.

To make this clear, another typical story of this nature was published in the Guardian this month. A mobility scooter was bought online for an elderly mother. When the scooter stopped working without good reason, the shop that sold the family the scooter were less than cooperative.

Instead of highlighting warranty issues ahead of time or taking extra care to work with the family, the online shop in question spent a long time ignoring requests or sending matter-of-fact statements.

In this case, it is not simply a case of poor customer service. It is poor customer service, but in this sector, where consumers are dealing with change more than most, poor customer service is a much higher-stakes issue.

Stories of this type risk alienating the very people that the industry serves and relies on. There is a risk that the consumers that require these products will be left behind by an increasingly impersonal service that other — primarily younger — sections of the population are better equipped to navigate.

With social care funding struggling to meet demand and local authorities finding it difficult to fund projects, the Shopmobility store mentioned previously is an archetypal example of the slashing of funding in this area. It is incredibly important that private enterprise takes up the slack in a sensible and attentive manner.

A recent Red Cross report stated concern for up to 3.8 million people in the UK that are left without adequate mobility aid due to the NHS not providing wheelchairs in certain areas, a general lack of information about services, or mobility aid centre closures across the country.

Private companies must make sure adequate funding is in place to always have staff on hand — whether this is on the phone, online or even in person.

Staff must also be properly trained and know their products back to front, as this will ensure online stores offering life-enhancing technologies are set up to be used with confidence by people who have only recently found themselves having to go online for these types of services.

Simply waiting for the older generation to catch up with online technology is not the answer. Steady growth in the sector is one thing, but with private enterprise now so influential in the provision of these technologies, the industry as a whole must play its part in helping create and maintain a well-functioning society.

Gary Braithwaite is the director of Bayliss Mobility, a leading UK supplier of mobility equipment. 

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Carly Hacon

The author Carly Hacon

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