There are few sectors in the mobility industry as in demand, competitive and richly occupied as the walking aid segment. Fortunately, this means huge potential for dealers and guaranteed business. But to make the most of the opportunities and stay one step ahead of rivals, it is important to know what’s out there, how the market is moving and what’s driving trends.
It is impossible to overlook the importance and size of the walking aid market. Arguably the most expansive sector of the mobility industry, demand for devices in this segment outstrips most other equipment categories. Mobility dealers will be fully aware of the size of the walking aid market and there is a vast range of suppliers offering all kinds of devices including rollators, walkers, frames and sticks, alongside some truly unique and specialist equipment, to help retailers realise the market’s potential.
But with such a deep pool of products to choose from, whittling the equipment down to the aids which are most relevant to your customer base can be a tricky and lengthy process. What’s more, the variation of requirements, abilities and sizes of end-users can make buying in the ‘right’ equipment a headache for distributors.
There are however, some key points to consider when choosing walking aids to sell and these are generally straightforward, according to OneRehab sales manager Nick Knappett. He notes, the main ingredients of any good walking product are manoeuvrability, size suitability, weight, grip quality and ease-of-use.
Delving deeper into what makes a good product, Howard Payne, managing director of manufacturer Polymorit, says that the condition of the user will dictate the type of aid and the features it needs. Fortunately, there is no shortage of affordable equipment for people who may only need a walking aid occasionally. But, for certain conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, post-surgery rehabilitation and long-term disability, the choice is more limited, says Payne.
Payne, who recently secured distribution rights for a new wheelchair-walker rehabilitative device called the Wheellator, says: “Since walking is undoubtedly the best form of exercise, the more we do it, the greater the health benefits are. A successful device will enable the user to walk, rest, walk further, sit and self-propel, or sit and be transported by a companion.”
As important as it is to offer a range of good quality, practical aids suited to different requirements, one thing that should not be overlooked is the aesthetics of a walking aid. This is vital so that the end-user feels comfortable using the device in public and does not avoid using it, which can increase the risk of falls.
Classic Canes has specifically designed its products for users to show off. Cracking the stereotype of walking sticks as an unsightly symbol of limited mobility, the supplier’s managing director, Charlotte Gillan, says the ‘feel-good’ factor should never be under-estimated. This is especially important for retailers wanting to sell more expensive sticks at better margins, she adds.
“For many people, the moment they are told they need to use a walking stick can be demoralising. However, once they realise that they don’t have to have an ugly hospital-style stick, things look rosier. Our most successful stockists are those that stock a wide range of canes in different colours, patterns and materials as this greatly increases the chance of having one to suit a particular customer’s requirements,” Gillan explains.
Strong supply chain
Just as important as selecting the best equipment is choosing the right suppliers to work with. And for James Bridge, managing director of Flexel Mobility, this means companies who can offer marketing assistance and plenty of on-hand stock. Reiterating the need for responsive and efficient trade partners, Knappett says reliability and access to spare parts and accessories are valuable factors to look for in suppliers. Similarly straightforward, Alan Sullivan, head of product management at Drive DeVilbiss, lists essential supplier qualities as good product variety, QC procedures and not least, ISO-confirmed equipment.
Describing the benefits of working with companies who can offer unique items, Payne says a proactive supplier will be searching for new and innovative products to fill gaps in the market, rather than just be a ‘me-too firm’.
He comments: “This is Polymorit’s philosophy; only to sell unique, high quality products distinguishable from the run-of-the-mill. Retailers benefit from supplier support packages, where training, sales promotion and leads can help to attract new business. Polymorit are actively promoting these features and working with retailers across the country to develop a network of supported dealers.”
Aside from innovation, a core aspect of any good supplier is trust, says Gillan. She says that all mobility retailers need to have confidence that the product they are buying will serve the end-user.
“As well as the stick sale itself, there is a strategic value as a walking stick is often the first purchase a new customer will make. A wide range of colours and patterns leads to good repeat business of larger items. All manner of retailers sell walking sticks now and it is difficult to stand out from the crowd if you only stock a few basic models.”
Where it’s heading
Despite their simple purpose, walking aid products are generally design-led and there is no shortage of innovative items driven by clinical progression, R&D and changing customer tastes and demands. Sullivan explains that there is a general move towards more stand-out products rather than “run-of-the-mill ranges”.
“This is reflected in our recent product launches where we have introduced a selection of more design-led, feature-rich products such as the Nitro Elite, an ultra-lightweight, luxury carbon fibre rollator. Or our new, innovative Triwalker with seat. It’s not purely about price point; products need to offer something different.”
Meanwhile, Bridge feels there will be a shift towards high-quality products that are stylish and practical. “Our aging population is more active than ever before, and they will be looking for products that aid their independence without sacrificing their lifestyle.”
For Gillan, the walking stick market is diverging into two camps: “The discount retailers who only sell on price and have to offer ever-cheaper models to compete with similar retailers, and those who prefer to avoid this race to the bottom and aim for the quality end of the market, where the values and margins are greater and the customers more loyal.”
But at the same time, a squeeze on healthcare budgets means specifiers are looking for walking aids which are more sophisticated and are better value for money, according to Payne. He notes that the innovation of items like the Wheellator, which aids rehabilitation and aims to prevent mobility deterioration, could help save money for healthcare providers. Payne therefore believes there is a very strong case for Polymorit’s Wheellator in today’s market.
While all walking aids effectively have the same aim, it is clear that there are many different ways of achieving increased mobility and companies are heading their separate ways to do this. And even though dealers can guarantee walking aids will sell, getting on board with the correct suppliers and products is key to achieving a good result for the end-user, a strong margin and repeat business.
Adhering to a few golden rules however; for example choosing the most quality, stylish products and reliable suppliers, ought to help dealers stay in line with consumer demands and achieve consistently good sales. This does not mean though that trying something new should be discouraged. The walking aid sector is progressing and the retailers who want to be at the cutting-edge need to stay one step ahead of their rivals when it comes to the products they offer.