The ups and downs of the stairlift and home lift markets

With a number of stairlift and home lift companies reporting global growth, as well as significant domestic success during tough economic conditions, THIIS examines in-depth what is driving some suppliers rise in the market, what retailers are looking for from brands, as well as investigating what impact the relatively new home lift market is having on the established stairlift sector.

Global growth forecast

A 2016 Persistence Market Research report reviewing the global stairlift market anticipated a global compound annual growth rate of 7% leading up to 2024, with Europe remaining the largest market and North America expected to grow at the fastest rate over the period.

One stairlift manufacturer which is taking advantage of this growing US market is West Yorkshire-based Acorn Stairlifts, who is now the market leader in the sector in America.

The company recently leapt up the Sunday Times Grant Thornton Top Track 250 league table, after published sales figures for the year ending September 2016 revealed global sales of its British-made stairlifts at £177.2 million, an operating profit of £18.9 million and a total workforce of 1,307.

Joanne Richardson, Finance Director for Acorn, commented: "We now export to around 85 countries and have grown to become the world’s biggest business concerned solely with the manufacture, supply, installation and maintenance of home stairlifts.”

Other stairlift manufacturers in the industry are also experiencing similar success, with the Handicare Group’s President and CEO Asbjørn Eskild stating in the organisation’s interim report for January to September 2017 that the Group has "already noted considerable and expanding interest in our stairlifts in the US. In the third quarter, stairlift sales posted a year-on-year increase of 19%.”

The global demand does not seem to be limited to just stairlifts as well, as the moderately new domestic lift is also seeing growth overseas.

Speaking with Gino Farruggio, Trade Sales Director at Stiltz Lifts, he told THIIS: "We have seen awareness of domestic lifts and, interest in Stiltz home lifts in particular, increase significantly over the past three years as more and more people discover that these types of products are available.”

Domestic home lift specialist Stiltz Lifts was ranked as one of Britain’s fastest growing SME exports in the Sunday Times Lloyds SME Export Track 100, which ranks SME enterprises with the fastest-growing international sales over the past two years.

Gino continued: "We’ve installed our domestic lifts in more than 20 countries with strong sales in the USA, Germany and France helping us increase exports by 146 per cent to £3.2million in 2016, with total recorded sales of £8.4million.”

This trend of growing demand in the home lift market was echoed by Terry Lifts.

John McSweeney, Marketing & Export Director for home lift provider Terry Lifts, confirmed: "All over the developed and developing world, we are seeing increased demand as awareness increases for home lifts.”

The world is getting older

One of the key factors driving this demand is the booming mature market, with a 2017 United Nations report into the global ageing population stating the number of persons aged 80-years or over across the world is projected to increase more than threefold between 2017 and 2050, rising from 137-million to 425-million.

The report also found that Europe and Northern America contain the highest percentages of older populations, predicting that by 2050, older people are expected to account for 35 percent of the population in Europe and 28 percent in Northern America.

The UK population aged over-65 is predicted to increase to 23 percent by 2033 and as the age of the population continues to increase, so too will the challenges facing older individuals.

Ageing-related health conditions is accelerating the demand for stairlifts according to Persistence Market Research’s 2016 research, as those with reduced mobility seek to maintain their independence.

Domestic economic impact on the market

The study also predicted that the UK will remain the dominant stairlift market in Europe. However, has rising inflation caused by a weakening pound and a slowing in consumer spending impacted the private domestic demand for stairlifts and home lifts?

David Harrison, Sales and Marketing Director at Companion, believes that the economic climate has not played a significant role in the stairlift market.

He told THIIS: "Most of our customers are purchasing because they need a stairlift. It’s not an aspirational product and as such, demand isn’t really affected by whether or not people are spending or prices are rising. We’re not immune to the economic climate but its impact isn’t huge.”

This sentiment was reaffirmed by Stiltz Lift’s Gino Farruggio, who added: "We have seen no impact from the current economic climate on our business. On the contrary, we are seeing more and more people investing in Stiltz home lifts.

"From our research, homeowners can save more than £5,000 by buying one of our lifts rather than moving house but we don’t necessarily believe it is because it is too expensive to move due to slower rising inflation or a weaker pound. It’s more due to the fact that a Stiltz home lift enables them to stay in the home they love or ‘future proof’ their property for use in later life.”

Terry Lifts has also seen no decrease in private domestic demand, noting that the company has actually benefitted from the current economic climate.

"The target market is generally affluent and already retired, so this has had no effect on our business to date,” confirmed John McSweeney.

"The weakness of sterling has had a beneficial effect in terms of exports, with around a 15% cost reduction for overseas purchasers.”

Whilst the private stairlift and home lift markets domestically have proven resilient to current economic pressures, the outlook for the public-sector side of the market is less optimistic.

Handicare’s National Sales Manager Paul Stockdill explained: "The lack of clarity around funding for home adaptations continues to be a challenge for everyone working in the social care sector.

"Last winter, the NHS experienced the highest-ever level of delayed transfers of care due to a lack of adult social care provision for patients fit for hospital discharge. There’s clearly a need for stairlifts and other home adaptations which can ease the pressure on NHS budgets, but the delivery of services needs to be addressed and quickly.”

Despite funding pressures impacting the parts of Handicare that work with local authorities and organisations, the company remains confident that its offer will be attractive to this market.

"We have a very positive message for our clients in these sectors as our equipment and services can reduce cost pressures elsewhere in their public spending,” said Paul.

As well as communicating the benefits of its offer to customers affected the public-sector budget constraints, Handicare have also developed and adapted their stairlift offer to remain competitive.

Paul added: "Across the UK, we work with facilities management companies and large local authorities to supply, maintain and service stairlifts and have significantly improved the speed and quality of the service for users, at the same time reducing costs by introducing newer ‘plug and use’ technologies.”

Competing for partner loyalty

Across the industry, the route to market for various stairlift and home lift manufacturers varies, with companies such as Acorn Stairlifts opting to handle all aspects of the process themselves, from manufacturing to supply, installation and maintenance.

The company attributes its continued growth to its fast response times one-stop business model, marketing its own stairlifts direct to customers and providing a full installation and aftercare service.

An alternative route to market that plays a pivotal role in stairlift and home lift manufacturers’ and providers’ success is via building strong, profitable relationships with retailers.

Various organisations interact with dealers in different capacities, with some opting to train and accredit retailers to be able assess and install stairlifts and home lifts, whilst others reward partners for passing on leads.

Paul Stockdill discussed just how important working with dealers is to Handicare’s continued success: "Dealer sales are a huge part of our growth strategy and we’ve got some new services planned for launch early in 2018, which will enable us to offer a wider support package that can be tailored according to our partners’ preferences and ambitions for their businesses.”

Retailers that have the capacity to assess, install and maintain stairlifts are valuable to suppliers, as they have the ability to engage and sell to customers on an often difficult to reach, local level.

Alastair Gibbs, Managing Director of mobility retailer TPG DisableAids, explained: "There will always be some conflict between direct sales and dealer sales, but often we would target a different customer in a different marketplace. Where some will respond to national advertising, many wish to buy locally and would look for a supplier in their locality.

"Manufacturers should not underestimate the power that some self-installing distributors have in their locality and as we take on the labour content of the warranty, we can also be good value sales to them, even if their margin is slightly lower at day one.”

This has led to a number of suppliers creating schemes rewarding partner loyalty in a bid to gain competitive advantage and incentivise retailers to promote their products and brands.

Commenting on the benefits of becoming a Handicare partner, Paul said: "Our Partner Programme is designed to help increase dealers’ commercial activity as well as rewarding their commitment and loyalty and it’s really been gaining momentum over the last six months.

"For us, it’s all about choice, and we’d like to allow our partners to choose how much support they want from their preferred product partner. Next year promises to be an exciting one, and we’d love to welcome even more dealers to the programme.”

This is a business model also being adopted in the younger home lift market by Stiltz, who launched their new Stiltz Home Lift Training Academy just over a year ago.

The company has enthusiastically promoted the new training scheme to retailers, designed to enable partner companies to install the domestic lifts into customers’ homes themselves, rather than relying on Stiltz' installation teams.

"It has been very successful with several dealers graduating from the programme,” said Gino Farruggio.

"Our overall aim is to have a trade dealer representing Stiltz Lifts in every major city or town in the UK. However, while we have had lots of interest and approaches from businesses, we are very mindful of the way we select our trade dealer partners because it is paramount that the customers receive the highest level of service from them.”

For retailers unable to participate in the programme, the home lift specialist offers two alternative tiers for dealers to become involved.

"There is the option of the entry-level Stiltz Lead Referral Scheme where the dealer promotes and markets Stiltz products, then passes on enquiries and receive commission on the sales (of up to £1,000 per sale),” detailed Gino.

"Alternatively, a mid-tier programme is available whereby dealers promote and market Stiltz products, complete the sale and receive an even higher commission, but we complete the final survey and install the lift.”

Referral schemes provide retailers that lack the infrastructure to assess and install stairlifts and home lifts with the potential to earn high commissions and offer additional products and services to customers without expensive investment.

This is a model that drives Companion Stairlifts, as David explained: "Collaboration and strong partnerships have always been important to us at Companion; they are indicative of the way we conduct our business in a way that benefits our customers, partners, suppliers, employees and our community. We’re in business to be successful and grow; but it’s how we achieve this that makes us stand out from our competition.”

In order to encourage retailers to partner with the stairlift provider and stay a step ahead of competition, the company launched its Accredited Partner Programme in Spring 2017, offering partners valuable marketing support, as well as tempting rewards for loyalty.

"We’ve been very pleased with the response to our Accredited Partner programme,” said David. "Our intention was always to improve communications between Companion and our network of mobility retailers, and to give them additional marketing materials to help promote our stairlift and accessible bathing services.

"We’ve had excellent feedback and we’ll be launching the next phase of the programme in 2018.”

What do retailers really want?

Speaking with TPG DisableAids’s Alastair Gibbs, he told THIIS that some of the loyalty schemes offered were of little interest to him when choosing who to partner with.

"We are main agents for many of the leading brands of stairlifts that are either manufactured or sold in the UK,” explained Alastair.

"Some of the ‘Loyalty Schemes’ that are offered are of minor interest; in all honesty, we are often looking for a more serious commitment to partnering.”

Installing around 1000 stairlifts each year, the retailer is a long-term supplier and installer of stairlifts to many different buyers and has contracts with Local Authorities, Housing Associations and also supplies lifts on Disabled Facilities Grants and privately.

For Alastair, there are two key areas which determine whether he works with brands; product quality and marketing support.

"It is of little interest to us to have a short-term special offer or extra discount or points for prizes if the core product offering has shortcomings. I often use the phrase, ‘Make me Comfortable’. This means I am comfortable in the knowledge that the product is of good quality, it is reliable, it has sufficient features and options to fulfil our customers’ requirements, and it is backed up by professional people that understand how dealers and distributors work,” said Alastair.

The retailer noted that high percentage of profit on the day of install was not what he was after if it was eroded away during the course of the warranty, resulting in no margin and an unhappy customer.

He continued: "Additionally, I often think many manufacturers are slow or poor in their marketing support. It is all very well supplying quantities of glossy leaflets but that is Point of Sale, it is not marketing. What I would look for is how can we work together to bring customers to our door or encourage them to make contact in the first place.”

Many retailers are keen to work with manufacturers that have got the core offer correct and understand how to meaningfully work with retailers to really add value to the relationship.

Stairlift vs home lift market

The emerging home lift market has seen considerable growth over recent years, with established stairlift brands such as Stannah and platform lifts companies such as Gartec releasing their own home lift brands, as well as companies specialising in the technology such as Lifton and Stiltz.

Interestingly, when asked if this developing market was threatening the larger and more established stairlift market, suppliers on either side shared very different opinions.

Companion’s David Harrison believes stairlifts are not competing with home lifts, with the price points of both products being the biggest differentiation.

He explained: "We don’t believe customers see home lifts as an alternative solution. It’s a different proposition for many due to the high cost and disruption to their homes compared with installing a stairlift.”

Research carried out by Rica for Age UK in 2016 found the average price for a stairlift to be supplied and installed was in the region of £5500 – although this can vary widely depending on the stairlift purchased, the environment and the company – whereas the cost of a home lift is often more than double the cost.

David added: "Stairlifts continue to be a cost-effective and affordable solution to the challenge of climbing stairs for many people as they get older.”

New technology, such as Handicare’s photographic survey systems (PhotoSurvey), also continues to improve the installation process of the devices, further reducing time and costs whilst improving accuracy.

Despite their more expensive price tag and potential installation disruption however, home lift suppliers insist that more consumers are turning towards home lifts as a viable substitute to stairlifts.

John McSweeney from Terry Lifts commented: "To a degree, consumers are moving away from stairlifts to home lifts. Increased awareness of the home lift as a safer, more flexible alternative to the traditional stairlift is a key factor.”

Stiltz’ Gino Farruggio supported this idea, highlighting that the company’s home lifts can be installed almost anywhere in the home rather than limited to a staircase, can provide more independence for wheelchair and walking frame users, and importantly, shakes off the stigmas associated with stairlifts.

"We are seeing more and more consumers choosing a home lift rather than a stairlift because they recognise the huge benefits,” argued Gino.

"A Stiltz home lift is a much more dignified solution for the user as, in some homes, the first thing visitors might see when they walk in is the stairlift.”

The home lift suppliers also emphasise that installing a domestic, through-the-floor lift into a property raises its value.

"A fully enclosed home lift will add value to a property as it becomes desirable to a wider demographic. A stairlift does not achieve this and the new homeowner often has to pay to get it removed as it has negative connotations surrounding mobility and disability” highlighted John McSweeney.

Gino supported the claim, adding: "Customers who have bought a Stiltz home lift and had to move for whatever reason, such as deciding to emigrate for example, have told us that the value of their property has increased due to them having a domestic lift.”

Appealing to a younger audience

Whilst the two products may not be competing across the wider demographic of disabled and older customers yet, there is the risk that as home lifts become more affordable, they may pip stairlifts to the post when engaging with customers.

According to both Stiltz and Terry Lifts, home lifts appeal to a younger demographic who are looking to the ‘future proof’ their homes, in comparison to stairlifts which are typically purchased when mobility becomes an issue.

Gino told THIIS: "The average age of a Stiltz Lifts customer is 60 - 65 because they are looking ahead to the future. We have seen many consumers of retirement age, who have recently moved house, choosing to install one of our domestic lifts because they have no intention of ever moving again.

"They see Stiltz home lifts as a cost-effective solution rather than having to move house again when they might be in their 70s or 80s.”

Terry Lifts also noted the typical age of their customers is declining:

"This is starting to come down as empty nesters, who are still working, look to invest in their properties and future proofing is one way to achieve that,” explained John McSweeney.

With the global population over aged 60 years and over expected to double from 962 million in 2017 to 2.1 billion by 2050 according to the UN’s ageing population study, the potential market in the coming years for home lifts is set to expand and could threaten the stairlift market’s share if the products’ price points fall.

Home lift market challenges

The market outlook for home lifts seems positive, however, suppliers in the market face some significant challenges. For Stiltz, the need to raise awareness amongst customers about the product is fundamental, with many individuals being unaware of the option of a home lift and others considering the cost to be too great.

"Awareness of Stiltz home lifts and, domestic lifts in general, has increased but it continues to be our biggest challenge as there are still people unfamiliar with our products,” said Gino.

"The concept of installing a lift in your home is still fairly new and, here at Stiltz Lifts, we have a saying that we want to ‘democratise’ home lifts which basically means making our products something that is ‘accessible to everyone’.”

For Terry Lifts, safety is a key concern, with the company’s Maxine Skelton confirming that in England and Wales, there is no statutory requirement to fit any fire protection to the underside or the top cover lid for residential installations of through-floor-lifts.

John McSweeney commented: "Ensuring that all manufacturers comply with the relevant European and UK standards, particularly in regard to fire and smoke protection and easy emergency lift lowering and passenger release is a major challenge.

"The industry cannot afford to play fast and loose with consumers lives. This was brought home so tragically recently with the Grenfell House fire disaster in London.”

What does the future hold for stairlifts and home lifts?

With an ageing global population that is widely forecast to continue increasing steeply over the coming decades, the outlook for both stairlifts and home lifts looks positive, with stairlifts enjoying a degree of immunity from economic fluctuations due to the essential nature of the product.

The home lift market, which currently appeals to the more affluent older customer due to the products’ higher price point, may increasingly threaten the market share of the stairlift sector as the product’s price comes down.

This may become more prominent as home lifts are able to appeal to younger end-users, benefitting from not having the same connotations associated with them as stairlifts.

As demand continues to grow and competition by suppliers to get in front of local customers continues, retailers are likely to receive even better commissions and rewards as suppliers invest more time and resources wooing them to become a partner.

In the end however, it is the manufacturers that are able to build strong relationships and meet both the quality requirements and support needs of retailers that will see lasting, fruitful trade partnerships.