Aid and Enable becomes Homecare Medical Suppliers

In June, THIIS covered the story of Sarah Boys, a medical professional who hung up her scrubs after working on the BBC’s popular drama Holby City and decided to open a new retail store in Ireland. Speaking with Sarah, THIIS revisited the fledgeling retailer to learn more about a series of surprising events that have taken place over the last six months.

The first year of a new business is often make or break but for retailer Aid and Enable, the company now has a wider range, another store to manage and a new name in just half-a-year!

Having started trading on the 1st June 2017, Aid and Enable was steadily building business throughout its first month when Sarah received a call from Peter McGuinness, Managing Director of Homecare Medical Supplies.

The organisation has a network of stores across Ireland, selling and distributing both own-brand and supplier-branded homecare medical equipment, consumables, as well as providing the service, decontamination and hire of medical equipment.

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Having spent two decades selling for medical companies in the UK and Ireland, Sarah was no stranger to the company, with Homecare Medical Supplies having been one of her major competitors. It was an interesting proposition however from the national company that led to the two crossing paths this time.

Peter requested a meeting and when the two sat down later that week, he set out a proposal for Aid and Enable to become a distributor for Homecare Medical Supplies. Not only did discussion centre around Aid and Enable’s new Bantry store, but also developed to include the possibility of taking over their Cork store – one of Aid and Enable’s competitors.

Following weeks of research, negotiations and raising funds, Aid and Enable took on the Homecare trademark and distribution for both Bantry and Cork from the 2nd of November, with Sarah’s sister Debbie managing the Bantry store and her son, Zak, managing the Cork outlet.

THIIS spoke to Sarah to find out more about the new opportunity, her experiences in the retail market so far and what the future holds.

What were your thoughts and concerns when approached to become a distributor for Homecare Medical Supplies? Was this an outcome you had considered when you first started Aid and Enable?

We had researched the national & local markets quite thoroughly and actually flagged Homecare Medical Supplies’ store in Cork as a major competitor to our Bantry store. However, we believed we would have enough of a catchment area to sustain the business. We also visited the Cork store several times as we were impressed by the layout and merchandising and wanted to emulate it in Bantry where feasible.

When Peter contacted us, we were surprised more than anything else. There followed a very open and frank meeting, during which the focus was on the Bantry store and the possibility of becoming a distributor in West Cork.

Although we’d researched many potential competitors, we hadn’t realised that some of the Homecare stores were run on this basis and so it was an outcome that we had never considered.

What was it that inspired Peter to first approach you to become a Homecare distributor and also take over the Cork store?

Back in September 2016, we visited Trade Days at the NEC looking for potential suppliers and it was there that we first came across THIIS. After a short conversation, we agreed that we would get in touch closer to our opening date to see if we had a newsworthy story.

My previous connection with the BBC, and particularly Holby City, provided our angle and we were delighted to be featured on the cover of the June 2017 edition. We realised that we would probably not be hitting our potential customers but it did raise our profile with our chosen suppliers and we received some very positive feedback from them.

Little did we realise that we had also brought ourselves to the attention of Homecare Medical Supplies. Peter mentioned in his initial phone call that he had seen the article and, sure enough, when he arrived in Bantry a few days later, he was brandishing the June edition of THIIS!

I think the fact that we had achieved a cover story impressed Peter and he could see our position in Bantry would give Homecare a chance to penetrate the West Cork market.

The proposal of taking on Cork came the following day, with Peter having had some discussions and reflection on the previous day’s conversation. For us, it was totally unexpected and we were absolutely thrilled at the possibility, especially as we were familiar with the store.

Like all projects, there’s quite a lot of work to be done but we now have a spacious store which is easily accessible, with private off-road parking and only five minutes from Cork University Hospital. It’s a great place to start.

What was it that motivated you to agree to become a distributor for Homecare?

As with most proposals, the offer from Homecare had a number of pros and cons. Our final decision was based primarily on how it would affect the customer experience. We can now offer a wider range of products as the ordering system is more streamlined, meaning we hold much less reserve stock.

Through Homecare Medical Supplies, we can also offer Hire Essentials – a range of larger equipment available for hire, including delivery, installation, collection and decontamination. We had already had enquiries about hiring but this had proved unaffordable for us working at our scale. Homecare also has an extensive range called Memory Corner, aimed at improving the care of those living with dementia.

We are now part of a national brand but with the independence to put our own stamp on the stores we run.

The partnership has increased the new retailer’s product range to offer their customer

What plans do you have in the pipeline for the new stores?

We have lots of exciting plans for both the Cork and Bantry stores and, hopefully, avenues that our competitors have overlooked as of yet. In that respect, we are going to keep our cards close to our chest because we know the industry reads the magazine!

As a company, Homecare is supporting us with some Facebook campaigns that are really promoting the Cork and Bantry stores, as well as store support and training. I will be approaching some of my contacts in the industry and also present to special interest groups.

Also, given the time of year, Zak is looking at how best to promote gift ideas as well.

What does the new arrangement mean for the future of Aid and Enable? Will the store keep its branding or will it become a fully branded Homecare Medical Supplies store?

There were various options open to us in this regard but, as the Cork store was already trading under the Homecare brand, it was decided to rebrand Bantry for the sake of continuity. It also means that any promotion can easily include both stores.

We are still Aid and Enable as a company and it was sad to lose the name on the high street but I just remind myself that it was all our efforts up to July that has now led to us operating two great stores.

What has been the reaction from your customers now you are now flying the Homecare flag?

We are presently right in the middle of the changeover in Bantry. It is great to be able to talk to customers about the increased range of products and, if necessary, swap stock between the stores at short notice.

Fortunately, some of the suppliers used by Homecare are the same that we had chosen for Aid and Enable so it helps make the changeover more seamless. It is also a perfect opportunity to go back to healthcare professionals with a new catalogue and website, as well as the augmented services that Homecare can offer.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your first six-months mobility retailing?

Whilst I had been selling products into some retail outlets in my previous role, it was still a daunting prospect to stock a whole shop from scratch.

Trade Days was the single event that led to us establishing most of our suppliers. I was also able to meet with an occupational therapist with retail experience who gave me invaluable advice on our initial stock purchase.

One of my main activities previously had been continence assessment and staff training so I knew that this would form the core of our business, but it is also a very personal subject and some people are disinclined to want to discuss it.

Building up this side of the business has been slow, but steady. We have an expanding core of customers and really, once you have put them at ease, you can meet their needs far better.

Our initial plans for marketing the Bantry store got pretty much put on hold once the proposal from Homecare was on the table. After the second meeting with Peter, we knew we wanted to pursue this option.

Thus, after being open for only six-weeks, we had to embark on more research, more negotiations and seek more finance, eventually taking over in Cork about four months after the initial phone call.

It was hard work and worth it but now we need to refocus on some of our original plans for Bantry and forge ahead with Cork.

What have you most enjoyed from your time in the mobility retail industry so far?

This is a very person-centred industry, not only in regard to our customers but also with the people we work alongside. We have had invaluable advice from people in the industry, some previous customers of mine and others, new acquaintances in the industry, so building these relationships has been very rewarding.

We also realise that we are in a sector where we can truly make a difference. Sometimes we are exposed to very sensitive and upsetting situations and that can be tough. I know from my work in nursing homes that continence care has a huge impact, not only on the client but also on the family and staff involved in their care.

I’m sure every store has a similar story but we had a lady return to the shop the other day having purchased some continence wear previously. She was delighted that her mum had her first dry night in years. That makes it worth it.

How do you see the landscape of mobility retailing changing over the next few years?

One positive factor is that our sector is naturally expanding. As in the UK, Ireland has an ageing population as well as a health service that is under increasing pressure, partly because of this.

There is a push to increase the number of nursing home places but many people, understandably, want to remain in their family homes for as long as possible. This, along with the increase in joint replacements and the gradually more open attitude to incontinence should present us with a sustainable business in the future.

As with other industries, we will probably see an increase in online shopping. Even the present generation, who might now be purchasing for elderly parents, are likely to be experienced, online shoppers.

There are companies selling exclusively online in Ireland who are benefiting from their lower overheads. Supermarket chains are also diversifying to include continence products and mobility equipment.

We need our business to offer more. I want to offer a service. Whilst the referrals may come from the OT or physio, we want to then be there with our support, service and advice. We also want to be visible to the right people in the local community. Increasingly, I am asked to present to community groups and medical professionals to inform them of our product range.

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