The Abiliity Superstore
Aiming to provide its customers with one of the largest ranges of affordable mobility aids and daily living products in the UK, The Ability Superstore in Lancashire responded to customer feedback by recently opening a physical retail store. THIIS chats to Founder Julia Phipps about how her business has grown from strength to strength…

Founded in 2010 with the vision to help expand the mobility aids and daily living aid market, Ability Superstore has become a successful online business and a trusted supplier to the NHS.

As well as an online shop which enables customers to choose products either by room or by condition, the website features handy ‘how to’ guides on a range of topics, as well as news stories and features. Customers wanting to find out more about products can call the free telephone helpline from Monday to Friday. They can also email through questions to the in-house occupational therapist, Kate Makin, for her advice, or arrange a consultation with her.

In November 2021 the store’s founders, Mike and Julia Phipps, officially opened its first physical store in Nelson, Lancashire.

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Julia Phipps
Julia Phipps, Founder of The Ability Superstore

Early beginnings

Julia explains that she initially decided to set up the business after struggling to find suitable mobility aids for her ageing mother-in-law.

“Finding the right mobility aid was integral in helping my mother-in-law live a more independent and happy life in her later years. At the time though, it really was difficult to find the right products. Hundreds were available, sure, but with very little guidance, or advice, on which aids would be the right ones for her.

“Finding the right product truly makes a difference to someone’s independent living and I wanted to ensure that the right help and advice about them was available to customers.”

Initially, after establishing The Ability Superstore, like most business owners, Julia found that she wore many hats, but has since surrounded herself with a team who have a genuine care for what they do, which has allowed her to settle into the role of founder and focus on a few core areas.

This includes heading up the store’s procurement department and handling relationships with suppliers. She also heads up the finance team. She jokes: “I’m a big numbers fan!”

Julia’s experience prior to The Ability Superstore was as Group Marketing Director at UK Car Group, which looks after brands such as WeBuyAnyCar.com and Carcraft. “Working across the Group in many areas and helping to lead a culture change within the team really helped set me up for running my own business,” states Julia.

The Ability Superstore aidsStore challenges

Reflecting on the challenges in growing an independent business, Julia says that initially, the main issue was finding flexible business premises which would allow the business to grow.

“We started life on a local business park, in a massive Lancashire mill. Over the years we expanded renting more and more units as we grew the business.

“Every year we found ourselves needing to take on another unit or move units. It got to the point where it made sense to actually buy our own premises. So in 2018 we purchased an 18,500 square foot old Lancashire sizing mill, adapting it to suit our requirements with a spacious office, meeting rooms, warehouse and, now, a retail outlet.

“Finding a team who care about mobility aids and the disabled community wasn’t always the easiest either. Now we have a team who really do care and go the extra mile for our customers.”

The most challenges have come in the last couple of years, however. “Metal and general material shortages have not only disrupted stock acquisition, but also resulted in very frequent price increases from our suppliers,” says Julia.
As costs of products rise from suppliers, costs of products decrease from sellers such as Amazon, making for intense competition.

Brexit has also been a challenge as a lot of the suppliers and products have been carefully selected from companies within the EU.

Says Julia: “One of our best-selling brands of rollators are based in Sweden, for example, and it’s been difficult getting product into the UK and out into Europe.

“I like to think though, that we’ve navigated these challenges with a lot of agility and quick thinking. Of course, there have been times when we struggle with stock availability, but we always keep our customers up-to-date on the status of their order and, for the most part, they have all been very understanding.”

The Ability Superstore mobility aidsA physical store

When establishing the business Julia’s main priority was to succeed online, as, at the time, this was a relatively new route to market, and despite its huge success, there were no plans at first to open a physical store.

However they began to get many, many phone calls from customers asking to “pop in” and try a product out, or just to view or collect a product. “The frequency of these calls persuaded us to look at a small retail store. And with the amount of space we now own, it made sense too,” says Julia.

She adds: “Our client base like to see and hold what they’re buying before they part with their money, and whilst online shopping works for many, we know that visiting a store and you can’t put a price on having face to face customer service – especially after the last 18 months.”

Preparing the shop and opening in 2021 brought its own challenges, with one of the main ones being COVID-19.

Says Julia: “We had to keep our team safe, first and foremost, and you’d be surprised how difficult it is to fit out a shop when you’re socially distancing!

“Thankfully Adam, who works in Technical Operations, is our general handyman and got busy painting and building POS displays.”

“Carol, a member of our Operations Team, has been very busy for the last few months, analysing customer buying habits and deciding what to stock.

“She’s looked at orders and baskets and worked out what our main points of emphasis should be. Our TikTok-famous ‘Plug Tugs’ and ‘Safe Sips’ were an obvious choice, along with our range of Classic Canes. It’s really about having peoples’ favourite items readily available. This also includes our huge selection of rollators, shopping trolleys and wheelchairs.”

The rollator selection in the store has been immensely popular, says Julia, especially the Let’s Fly Rollator. Julia adds: “Designed in Sweden, they are honestly a work of art when it comes to rollators.”

The Safe Sip drinks covers, which fit virtually any drinking vessel, are also popular, and not just for the elderly. “With the recent outbreak of drink spiking in student areas, pubs and clubs, we’ve kept these as cheap as possible to allow them to be accessible to everyone. We’ve sold a lot of these to student unions across the country, and they really do work.”

The store is not looking at stocking more complex, prescription products at this time. The main focus, Julia states, is to provide mobility aids to the general public and create a network of accessibility for customers.

For example, the store recently partnered with Taking Care to inform its customers about an at-home personal alarm service with response callout. Julia adds: “This is something that, while not a general care product, can truly increase a person’s quality of life, providing them, and their loved ones, the knowledge that someone is at the end of the phone to help 24/7.”

Making a differenceThe Ability Superstore drinking aids

The business has recently made some additions to its marketing team, so that it can make use of social media in promoting its new physical store. Meanwhile, its online campaign has included videos and pictures from the store and interviews.

The shop is a base for the store’s YouTube channel, which is used to provide expert advice about products and offer tips for daily living.

As for the next 12 months, Julia says that realistically she expects to encounter more of the same issues that have hitting them in 2021.

“New variants of COVID-19, lack of materials, Brexit, and driver shortages. A lot of the time, these issues end up exacerbating each other!”

Thankfully though, Julia is confident that her team can deliver. “With our massive network of over 150 suppliers, we will continue to deliver great customer service, value for money prices and quickly.”

So far Julia couldn’t be more pleased with the reaction from customers to The Ability Superstore.
“Seeing people lead a more independent life after using one of our products, large, or small, truly brings a sense of joy to me.

“It’s why we’re so active on social media, receiving a message from someone telling us that our product helped them – that keeps us going.”

www.abilitysuperstore.com

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