Retailer Spotlight: How Stairlift Solutions N.I. is scaling new heights
After 23 years in business, Stairlift Solutions N.I. couldn’t be more excited to have just opened spacious new premises which makes it Northern Ireland’s largest stairlift and mobility showroom. THIIS speaks to Michael Wallace, Managing Director of Stairlift Solutions N.I. to find out more…
For a business that started from working out of a garage and has just expanded into a showroom so large that it is now Northern Ireland’s largest stairlift and mobility showroom, Stairlifts Solutions has come a long way.
The new showroom in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, which was officially opened by the Mayor of North Down & Ards, Karen Douglas recently, offers a whole range of products to help elderly and disabled customers. These include items ranging from stairlifts and mobility scooters, as well as riser recliners and wheelchairs.
Stairlift Solutions was established by the late Ken Wallace in 2000 and is now led by his son, Michael. Ken’s mother had moved over to Northern Ireland from England and she needed a stairlift.
Michael recalls: “Acorn Stairlifts were sending guys over from England to do the surveys and then other guys to do the installations. My dad had just retired after working for over 20 years at Rank Xerox and when he watched the installation he simply said – I could do that!”
After a successful meeting with two directors from Acorn Stairlifts the father and son were offered an opportunity to look after its business from Dublin to Galway.
Michael comments: “After basically establishing Acorn Stairlifts for the top half of Ireland and especially in Northern Ireland, we realised in 2006 that we could possibly go out on our own and do things independently.”
While Ken was more hesitant, Michael pushed it, particularly as he knew that they could get secure the dealership rights for Brooks stairlifts in the region.
The father and son team got their momentum and didn’t look back. Michael comments: “As the years progressed we ditched the estate cars that we’d always used, got a proper van, employed a fulltime engineer and continued to grow.”
In 2010 Michael took a year out to travel the world with his now wife Zowie. Before this time, he explains, he saw his role as helping his dad out with the business, but when he came back in 2011 he realised the potential that was there. “That’s when I started to have much more of an influence on the company in many different aspects,” explains Michael.
The next big year was 2016, when Ken retired and Michael fully took over. Michael states: “We moved out of working from home in Donaghadee to a proper office and showroom in Bangor, County Down, got more staff and took on extra mobility products, like scooters, riser recliners, wheelchairs, and more.”
In retrospect, he says, it was a huge gamble, which at the time he didn’t really appreciate until looking back, but he feels that taking a leap of faith was needed in order to move things to the next level.
Adds Michael: “All of a sudden I was in full control of a business, premises, multiple staff and brand new products.” It was a steep learning curve for Michael. Sadly, his father passed away suddenly just six months later.
It was a challenging period, recalls Michael. “Not only was I in unfamiliar territory but I was also grieving for my dad, who had still been there in the background for those first six months. So I no longer had his advice, guidance or help to fall back on.”
After a tricky period, Michael set about growing the business. The pandemic hit in 2020 which, despite obviously being a huge challenge, actually had a positive impact for the business, he recalls, possibly because people didn’t want to see their loved ones in hospital or in nursing homes.
In 2022, it became clear that Stairlifts Solutions had outgrown its premises in Bangor though so Michael began looking for larger premises. When a big unit in Newtownards became available he instantly moved in for it. Says Michael: “I knew the premises was perfect for us, both now and for the future, and it was an opportunity that I wasn’t going to miss.”
Looking for the right premises took a few months, says Michael, and despite viewing multiple sites none really ticked all the boxes, until Quarry Heights appeared. He admits it is also really good for the large town of Newtownards which has had nothing like this before and also helps them to serve many of the smaller towns across County Down, while also being close enough to Belfast and beyond.
The premises is four times the size of its previous premises in Bangor and boasts an office, showroom, store and warehouse. Says Michael: “When it came onto the market (as either a single or double premise) I snapped the entire place up immediately as I could see the potential for it now and into the future.”
As the new premises began as a big empty shell, it was in great condition, and it was really just a case of personalising it to how Michael needed it to be.
“We had a great joiner James Lyttle who did most of the work but the main parts were putting in a huge double, two storey staircase to showcase all our stairlifts, creating a purpose-built double office under the mezzanine, moving our big glass front window from the previous premises, installing a new mezzanine and a large amount of heavy duty racking in the store and then just painting and carpeting the whole place.”
The extra floor space meant that the retailer could massively increase its demo stock, so it has over 20 different mobility scooters all on display and all are available to try out, even inside, if it’s raining.
It also has several riser recliner models on display in a living room-style setting so that people can see them side by side and compare what they are like to sit on and use. The same for wheelchairs too, with powered wheelchairs also added to the ever-expanding range.
Michael adds: “The double showroom is ideal to showcase our various stairlift models, our mobility scooters, riser recliners, wheelchairs and more.”
The other half of the premises is used to store its stock of stairlifts and where staff prepare them for installation. It means that there is plenty of space to take big deliveries from suppliers with its in-house forklift and for multiple engineers to work at the same time. There is plenty of on-site parking too.
Valued staff members
The new premises accommodates 13 members of staff, all working in full and part time roles. These include five fulltime engineers, five members of staff working in the office and showroom, an apprentice, a bookkeeper and Michael himself.
Among them is General Manager James Dowling, who has been working on and off for the Wallaces since he was just 13 years old in 2006. James has played a pivotal role in the firm’s continued growth, which included stepping in when Michael took a year out of the business in 2010/2011. He then took on a fulltime role in the company in 2015.
Michael adds: “His work ethic, attention to detail and willingness to go above and beyond to help, epitomises everything we strive for here at Stairlift Solutions.”
Another key staff member is Jen Evans, who has been working with Stairlift Solutions for five years, going from working part-time in administration to Sales Manager. Says Michael: “Jen thrives under pressure, and her expertise, knowledge and patience has been crucial in being able to bring in and integrate more staff as we’ve grown in recent years.”
It’s not bad going given the business started out with just two. Michael adds: “I often think it’s crazy how much we have grown in such a short space of time but we’re definitely doing something right in a growing market so I’m excited about what the future holds!”
The team really is bigger and better than ever before, he says. “There is a great vibe around the place and everyone works very hard to maintain the high level that we have always had.”
Bestselling mobility products
The majority of the mobility products on display in the showroom come from Electric Mobility, which Michael appreciates for the back-up, support and customer service it offers. The Rascal scooters and CosiChair range are big sellers for the company, and Michael thinks that the new Iconic riser recliner, with its quad-motor function and tilt-in-space will be popular with customers too.
It has also introduced an extensive new range of rollators from Rehasense which it has plenty of room for now. “Something we couldn’t do in our previous premises due to the lack of space,” says Michael, who remarks that he had noticed them several times in THIIS Magazine.
“Personally, I think their rollators are excellent, especially the super-lightweight carbon fibre models, so we will certainly be promoting these now.”
The business stocks several brands of stairlifts. For the straight stairlifts, Michael states that the Brooks 130 has always been a best seller “due to the simplicity of it, both to install and to use.”
Since it became partners with Access BDD a few years ago the HomeGlide has also proved to “ very popular and reliable”, especially since the new revamped model came out a few months ago.
As for the curved stairlifts, customers are loving Access BDD’s Flow stairlift. Says Michael: “The Flow 2A was a great seller for us and it’s successor, the Flow X is even more popular, not least due to it’s five- year warranty and lifetime warranty option.”
More recently, Stairlift Solutions has partnered with Bespoke Stairlifts for its straight Synergy model and curved Infinity model and increasing its sales numbers with these two models.
Michael adds: “Bespoke’s Managing Director Dave Burns came over from England for the grand opening of our new showroom so it’s things like that that make a difference, having good working relationships with our partners is very important to us.”
As for products he is looking to stock up on in the future Michael has a few ideas. “I am keen to look at Access BDD’s Supra platform stairlifts next, which is a natural follow-on to standard passenger stairlifts and possibly even their through-floor lifts in time too. We may also look at adjustable disability beds at some point in the future too.”
Michael admits that it can be frustrating when customers come and take a lot of time to try out the models and see the features and then walk out empty handed, where they could then possible go and get the same thing online for cheaper.
To counter-balance that Michael says that his staff always emphasise the business’s comprehensive customer service offering.
Aiming to offer stairlifts at competitive prices, Stairlift Solitions promises to offer quick installations, with customers also able to rent them and purchase a cut-price reconditioned product.
It offers full back-up and support on its products, including a 24/7 365 days-a-year aftercare, with engineers on hand to answer calls. “Not only that but we offer free delivery, assembly and demonstration right across Northern Ireland too, which for many is invaluable.”
People often forget, Michael says, that many of these online ‘stores’ don’t deliver to Northern Ireland, or if they do, they charge a hefty fee for it, whereas that’s all built into the price where the product is delivered right to the customer’s door, professionally set up and fully demoed.
He adds: “Another point is the warranty, which is generally two years, so if there are any issues with a product then they can get in touch with us. If the customer buys online then they don’t know who to contact or what servicing is involved, especially as most of these places are across the water in mainland GB.”
The firm offers a ‘buy back’ service on all of its stairlifts, giving its customers something back if they no longer need it. The service costs the customer half the price of a new stairlift and also means the business has a reconditioned stock of stairlifts to sell, which is a huge part of our overall sales.
“Environmentally, it also helps too where we are recycling our stairlifts for others to use. We just cut a rail to a different length and the stairlift can easily be fitted again in another house, making life much easier for another family.”
The aim is for the business to have electric vans within the next few years also.
Michael admits that there were “huge challenges” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, where it saw the supply chains of the majority of its suppliers breaking down, however he is pleased the worst is past them and most are now fully back up and running again “which is great news all round.”
Another challenge, being Northern Ireland based, is the consequences and fallout from Brexit which has been disruptive, especially getting products over from its UK based suppliers.
Michael is hoping the new ‘Windsor Framework’ will relieve these shipping and movement issues soon. He adds: “Without getting too much into it, if the N.I government could ever get their act together and get Stormont back up and running it would be a huge boost to the country as there would be massive investment coming in from all sides due to our unique position between the UK and the EU.
“The fact that we still don’t have a sitting government is a disgrace and massively impacts every part and sector of N.I in a negative way, from the economy to NHS waiting lists to name just a couple. Uncertainty is never a good thing, especially for business, so the sooner they get back to work the better!”
Looking to the future
Now it lays claim to being Northern Ireland’s biggest stairlift and mobility showroom, Michael states that he is hoping that this year will see a big increase in footfall and ultimately a lot more mobility sales. The showroom is also open on Saturdays, making it more flexible and convenient for customer to stop by for a visit.
“As for the stairlifts, they should carry on with the steady growth that we have had year-on-year,” he adds.
Stairlift Solutions plans to do a TV advert with a local celebrity soon to help promote its new showroom. This will be going live later this year, and Michael states that they are all very excited about it and the potential impact it could have for the company.
After this big leap to the next level, Michael is keen to let things settle for a while and ensure some stability for a year or two as they grow into their new home.
He adds: “Certainly more shopping centre displays and things like that would be good now that we have more staff and also attending more shows and exhibitions too which the Federation of Small Businesses have helped out with in previous years.”
The business has won multiple awards in the past and Michael is keen to add some more to his collection, both locally and nationally. “As Which? Trusted Traders, I’m also keen to try and earn ‘Trader of the Month’ at some point.”
For now though, TV advertising campaign aside, after all the upheaval and hard work for the past six months getting their new home set up, the main thing Michael is looking forward, he says, is a well deserved holiday with the family in Italy.https://thiis.co.uk/retailer-spotlight-how-stairlift-solutions-n-i-is-scaling-new-heights/https://thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/received_909301110286490.jpeghttps://thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/received_909301110286490-150x150.jpegNewsroomRetailer SpotlightTrade Focusaccess,Mobility,Northern ireland,Retailer,Stairlift SolutionsAfter 23 years in business, Stairlift Solutions N.I. couldn’t be more excited to have just opened spacious new premises which makes it Northern Ireland’s largest stairlift and mobility showroom. THIIS speaks to Michael Wallace, Managing Director of Stairlift Solutions N.I. to find out more… For a business that started from...Liane McIvorLiane McIvorliane@thiis.co.ukEditorTHIIS Magazine