Most mobility products are designed to help people move around. But just as important to helping people live independent lives is specialist furniture. From beds and chairs right through to entire kitchens, the need for mobility furniture has never been so great. An aging population and decreasing tolerance against unsuitable environments means that companies need to provide evermore advanced and varied solutions to the market. Both suppliers and distributors recognise that there is business to be had from this sector but it is important to get product specification right.
Specialist furniture is something people have to live with every single day and so it has to be absolutely spot on in terms of functionality. But cost is also a prime consideration in furniture. OTs specifying products and customers choosing them are constantly scanning dealerships and websites to ensure they get the very best deal, service and after-sales support. Not only does mobility furniture have to be good value for money, safe, practical and above all functional, it needs to avoid looking institutional or clinical. The trend for all mobility products at the moment is to look ‘less disabled’ and this sector is no different.
AKW supplies specialist kitchen adaptations to the mobility market and is aware of the need for style as well as functionality. Marketing director, James Dadd, explains: “With more and more multi-generational homes, people are wanting to combine style and functionality into their homes and move away from pure functionality. Going forward, the companies that will prove most successful will be those that can create desirable and stylish solutions that are not only functional but aesthetically appealing.”
Choice is something which dealers have to offer when it comes to furniture. A product that plays such a large part in a customer’s life has to be absolutely correct and if something as simple as a colour is not quite right then a product may not be used, causing problems for the client. It is, of course, a challenge for smaller retailers to hold substantial amounts of furniture stock. Most showrooms feature large products like mobility scooters and other items, which are all battling for space with furniture. But it is still important, where possible, to ensure that customers are offered choice.
“Going forward, the companies that will prove most successful will be those that can create desirable and stylish solutions that are not only functional but aesthetically appealing”
Even though web retailers cannot always offer the same level of assessment and after-sales support as physical shops, online dealers do not usually have the issue of stock space and so can provide greater choice. Without the same levels of overheads, they can also offer discounted prices which contend with traditional dealerships.
In fact, some suppliers have seen a rising trend in retail partners selling more furniture online. This has been accelerated by the convenience that online channels offer combined with improved consumer confidence when purchasing larger ticket items online.
Major furniture supplier, Furmanac, is looking to support this growing trend and also to offer the same level of choice to consumers who may physically struggle to visit one of its retailers.
“Another trend we have observed is a growing request for information coinciding with consumers’ ever-growing product knowledge,” says the company’s marketing manager, Karen Dehal. “As consumer knowledge increases so does the desire for more information regarding the specification of furniture as this then allows for more informed purchases. To accommodate this growing need we ensure we have information readily available on our website and throughout our literature.”
In spite of the growing trend for online purchasing, larger furniture products, for example full kitchen adaptations and installations, will remain the domain of physical companies rather than online retailers. Complete room conversions and anything involving an installation requires a greater level of individual assessment and service.
AKW understands the importance of individuality and knows that each customer’s lifestyle and requirements demands a case-by-case approach. To complement this, it aims to design products that are versatile and suitable for multiple situations.
“The ActivMotion rise and fall range of accessible kitchen worktops and cupboards combines both style and function,” comments Dadd.
He continues: “Both worktops and cupboards can be raised or lowered at the touch of a button, depending on the requirements of the individual user, with the opportunity to fit hobs and sinks of any design into the movable countertops. Both wheelchair and non-wheelchair users alike can feel completely comfortable and safe in this multi-user, inclusive kitchen. The ActivMotion range is supplied rigid to site and can be retro-fitted to existing kitchens, saving time and cost during the installation process.”
Dadd’s point about ease of installation rings true with firms across the furniture sector. Installer contractors need to receive the best support possible from their suppliers to ensure customers receive a quick and hassle-free service. But dealerships themselves can offer direct support to customers to help bring in more business. Highquality furniture naturally carries with it a higher price point and, as such, dealers who do not offer flexible payment options can risk pricing themselves out of the market.
The Mobility Furniture Company and The Unlimited Company are just two retailers that have launched flexible payment programmes. In an effort to give consumers confidence to invest in mobility products, they are offering 0% credit for one year. It is hoped that consumers will be able to access better quality equipment without worrying about upfront payments, with no deposit required. One potential benefit for retailers is that it arguably allows a buyer the option of purchasing a more advanced, higher priced furniture item that may better fit their needs, rather than being limited to the most basic models. This not only rewards the business providing the furniture but also the end-customer, whose needs are better met.
In fact, customer spending power is viewed by some as a potential limitation for the mobility furniture market. Cuts to disability benefits and an uncertain economic climate make it difficult for providers to pull in droves of new customers. Dadd comments: “We regularly see media headlines about the impact of government austerity measures — the impact of which has been significant upon end-users, frequently extending timescales for bathroom and kitchen adaptations while also reducing grant funding.
“This has led to an increase in the private pay sector, with consumers funding the necessary changes themselves, in order to maintain their mobility and independence in their own homes. As users have more say in what they want installed, they are looking for style as well as functionality and companies are having to ensure that they have both if they want to compete successfully in the longer term.”
Austerity measures, the compliacated retail climate and reduced spending are not the only obstacles for specialist furniture companies at the moment. Many are still concerned about the uncertainty that Brexit is causing the trade in terms of the cost of imports and the reduced value of sterling and its impact on manufacturers.
In response, Dehal comments: “The best way to overcome this and help prevent these increases being passed along to the consumer is to firstly manage the supply chain, speak to supplier and see if negotiations can be made. For any price increases that must be implemented, clear communication is required between the manufacturer and distributor while ensuring ample notice is provided. Finally, if costs must be increased then also consider rewarding customer loyalty and improving the value-added benefits so that the negative consequence of increasing prices are mitigated.”
In light of these challenges, suppliers urge dealers to carefully select their furniture products and manufacturers. After all, any highly-priced unit ought to be carefully considered before being brought in.
When choosing suppliers and stock, at the top of Furmanac’s list is experience. Given the specialist nature of adjustable beds and rise and recline chairs, the company believes that finding a firm you can trust is essential. Following on from this, thoroughly testing the product is the next most important element when selecting furniture to stock, the company believes.
“Ensure the range can accommodate the varying needs, design tastes and budgets of your customers while considering the overall finish of the product. Using the likes of MiBed and MiChair as benchmarks, consider if the products are handmade using the finest raw materials and ask if there is a five to 10 year guarantee provided as standard,” Dehal says, adding: “Next, we would recommend reviewing the potential supplier’s capability to meet an increase in demand from your potential orders, for example Furmanac’s capacity to manufacture continues to grow, without compromising on quality.”
Furmanac’s final piece of advice for dealers is to look at the manufacturer’s willingness to build a strong relationship with the distributor. For instance, will they help to expand any ecommerce offering while also protecting their bricks and mortar retailers?
Dealerships who are successful in sourcing good products from a supplier who will offer support and advice can expect to make the most of the expanding mobility furniture market.
A winning combination of a solid relationship, good products and in many cases, installation support, is key to securing long-term success in this sector. And as the market develops, adaptation and flexibility will be paramount to ensuring dealerships are able to cope with changing customer demands. Meanwhile, those retailers who stand still are at risk of losing out on what is a fast-moving sector.