A number of Shopmobility equipment hire services around the country are struggling to operate with shrinking budgets but one dealer in Kent is gearing itself up for one of the busiest trading periods of the year.
Ability Plus, which opened a store in Bluewater shopping centre in Kent around two years ago, runs the Shopmobility service from its retail outlet on behalf of the centre.
It will have its work cut out next month when hundreds of thousands of Christmas shoppers will descend on Bluewater.
Graham Johnson, managing director of Ability Plus, said that the Shopmobility service is a full-time operation that has to be constantly managed from 9am to 10pm in the Christmas period.
He said: “I believe it’s the busiest and best-stocked Shopmobility in Europe. I haven’t come across any that are bigger.
“At Bluewater, people come in from all over the country and even Europe and further afield. I’ve been to Dubai and they have a massive shopping mall there and even they don’t have a Shopmobility service there.
“Bluewater is ahead of the game and it’s very supportive in regards to how we operate and promoting us within the centre.”
Johnson added that Shopmobility services are difficult to run if they are not done so commercially.
“Just doing the hires there wouldn’t be enough money to pay the wages and overheads. It has to be attached to a retail aspect,” he said.
Ability Plus is the fourth mobility company to operate the unit in Bluewater, with the previous three going into liquidation.
But the fact the location is on the dealer’s doorstep and the fact it is able to group together its operations, marketing and administration means it is able to overcome the challenges associated with running the service.
Johnson explained that when the last company operating the Shopmobility fell by the wayside, the service collapsed, leaving Bluewater, which has an annual footfall or nearly 30m, without a mobility hire service.
“I said: ‘don’t worry’, and I phoned up all our engineers and got them to take as many scooters as they could get on-board to Bluewater.
“We got that call at around 9.30 and by about 11.30 we had scooters down there ready to hire out. We were in there like a shot.”
In the last few months, a large number of Shopmobility services run by UK councils have gone to the wall as funding is cut.
A handful of services have been taken over by mobility businesses but those operating independently and without a retail element are increasingly disappearing, despite demand increasing.
Image: Ben Johnson and father, Graham Johnson, at Ability Plus’ store in Gillingham.