Virtually every retailer in the mobility game deals in wheelchairs. There are generally two types of equipment – basic, none-prescription items and more advanced, specialist products for prolonged usage.
But the general design of the wheelchair has remained unchanged for years and is unlikely to evolve radically given the nature of the human body. The future of the equipment, however, is interesting and should not be overlooked.
That’s according to Jo McConnell, education manager at Etac. She says that Personal Wheelchair Budgets will become more significant, giving users greater freedom of choice and opening up an opportunity for retailers: “We see wheelchairs becoming more aesthetically appealing and more configurable, along with greater inclusion of strong composite plastics so expensive metals can be replaced.
“There will always be basic wheelchairs on the market however we believe if you want to deliver maximum occupational performance, then products should be individually prescribed through a highly flexible and adaptable design.”
Daniel Stone, managing director of TGA, is likewise excited by the future of the wheelchair market. He notes that new and lightweight materials, such as carbon fibre and titanium, will be more prominent. One important trend, Stone thinks, will be an increasing desire to customise wheelchairs with lifestyle options and accessories, such as phone holders.
He adds: “Wheelchairs that support positive mental health lead to greater confidence with users and hence open up more achievements within work and social time.”
Aside from aesthetic developments, Ottobock’s head of mobility, Simon Tempest, says that the company expects the biggest advances to be in the creation of lighter, less expensive yet more durable materials.
He comments: “Even though we can’t reinvent the wheel, those components which make the wheel and the overall chair can be made with lighter materials, which will then in turn improve performance and quality of life for users. Trend-wise, we believe there will be changes in the way people buy their wheelchairs going forward.
“Much like what has been seen in the car industry, people are increasingly better informed about a product before they go to a dealership and firmly know what they want. It’s up to manufacturers to help customers with their decision making by offering more online services, from configuration to technical data.”
Tempest’s point about costs resonates with Flexel’s managing director, James Bridge, who says that costs are a principle driver in a market where main provision is by the state: “Low cost products rarely meet the needs of more challenged clients,” Bridge says.
“Yet manufacturers are restricted in what they can offer, despite the enormous advances in material science by budget constraints.”
Meanwhile, Marco Nosella, director of manufacturing at Progeo, which produces advanced chairs, says that in response to expected market developments, the company is exploring new materials and technology.
Not forgetting aesthetics, however, the Italian manufacturer is investing in new frame colours. A choice of colour options is important, but the quality of equipment is vital to a dealer’s success.
Karma Mobility’s general manager, Mark Duffield, notes that wheelchairs represent a very broad market. In terms of standard lightweight models, he says, Karma’s retailers tend to appreciate the added features and benefits of its portfolio and the reliability, which allows them to sell them with confidence.
While the equipment itself is usually the most important factor in any sale, suppliers note that it is often a dealer’s approach to wheelchairs which leads to success. Bridge notes that the best ones establish their clients’ needs and make sure they supply a wheelchair that meets those needs from sitting position through to budget and the environment in which the chair will be used.
Similarly, Stone says that the most successful wheelchair dealers are those that always put user needs of users first. In addition, choosing quality suppliers is essential, he says. “Dealers can benefit from free ‘product handling’ training so their customer advisors have sound knowledge that is leveraged during the assessment process.
“Customers need to be made aware of the most suitable product in terms of features and benefits, not the one that ‘appears’ to offer the best value. A wheelchair needs to provide suitable support otherwise it may not be comfortable or used.”
From Tempest’s perspective, the most successful retailers are the ones which have the best level of competence with the prescription of products. Dealers who put their full attention into the best interests of the customer are bound to be industry leaders, he adds.
Meanwhile, in Etac’s experience, without a considered approach and a comprehensive assessment of user requirements a positive outcome can be compromised.
McConnell says: “Dealers have a significant role to play in aftersales support. Wheelchair services do not cover repairs therefore the dealer’s approach to customer care will determine whether ongoing independence or mobility is assured. This in turn determines the reputation and success of the dealer.”
Most of the top industry suppliers agree that a retailer’s approach to the client is the most important factor in their success with wheelchairs. Yet, the importance of quality equipment and choice should not be overlooked.
As equipment and technology advances, those dealers who are stocking the most innovative and suitable products will be at the forefront of the wheelchair market.
In a sector as competitive and as crowded as wheelchairs, ensuring you are at the tip of the spearhead is vital to securing generous market share.