Warrington Disability partnership store front
A bigger store to match the charity’s big ambitions

It will not come as news to any retailer in the industry that the mobility sector is becoming increasingly competitive, with multiple retailers often competing in the same town and trying to entice the same customers through the door, alongside contending with the all-encompassing internet. To enjoy sustainable success, retailers are having to find new and inventive ways to set themselves apart in a crowded marketplace. Speaking with Dave Thompson MBE DL, Chief Executive of Warrington Disability Partnership and Disability Trading Company, he discusses how the charity and its trading arm is actively embracing new opportunities to carve out its place in the market, including the importance of diversification, as well as impending bricks and mortar expansion.

A short move for the long game

Founded in 1991 as the Warrington Information Group for the Disabled by Eric Shaw, Alan James and Dave, Warrington Disability Partnership has grown considerably over the years, providing over 25 vital services to disabled people locally and globally.

Built on the foundations of providing information, advice and guidance on all independent living matters, the charity decided to launch its own retail arm in 2011, with the same ethos at the heart of its operations.

Referring to its retail model as ‘values-based ethical trading,’ the charity established the Disability Trading Company as a social enterprise, selling a range of mobility and independent living products from three showrooms across the North West, with all profits being reinvested back into the charity.

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The organisation also operates retail services from the Lifehouse, a Disabled Living Centre in Liverpool; Shopmobility in Warrington; as well as in Warrington Hospital.

“As other dealerships are increasing their presence in Warrington and moving in closer to our store, it has actually done us a favour and we have seen our income has increase substantially.” Dave Thompson MBE

Trading from two main showrooms in Warrington – from Warrington Disability Partnership’s Centre for Independent Living and the other in Warrington’s town centre – the charity recently took the decision to relocate from its Golden Square Shopping Centre premises to a new space less than a minute’s walk away.

Small move, big gain

At the end of October, the North West-based charity upped sticks and moved from inside the mall to a larger outlet just outside the shopping centre, with the Deputy Mayor of Warrington Cllr Maureen Creaghan and Warrington Wolves’ legend Super Bennie Westwood officially cutting the ribbon.

Situated in-between high-street giants Specsavers and BrightHouse, the new Mobility and Independent Living Store offers Disability Trading Company the space to grow as the charity moves ahead with its upcoming plans.

“The store that we had in the Golden Square shopping mall was fairly small and we had the opportunity to take on something bigger, brighter, and much airier, it is actually on a better footfall area as well,” explains Gavin Thompson, Dave’s son and Commercial Director for the Disability Trading Company.

The new Warrington Disability Partnership store with mobility scooters outside
With the larger showroom, the company can focus on bigger-ticket products

Meeting the retailers’ criteria, the new space also has a first floor, which Gavin says will be used for some of the charity’s other services, including offering employment support to young disabled people.

“It means we have more space to display stock and can now display more practical daily-use products, including assistive technology, alongside larger products,” he continues.

“We have a couple of beds and now also have the space to demonstrate complementary products with them, such as hoists and bed tables. We also have a working stairlift demo unit and a bath for customers to try the various bathing aids.

“Equally, we have a much bigger range of mobility products, which we needed as an accredited-Motability dealer, so we have been able to focus on the top-end ranges, including some of the big 8mph scooters and the high-end powerchairs, plus scope for us to expand in other areas.”

A busy market

The move has come following a period of increasing competition in the North West and particularly in Warrington, which has seen more mobility players enter the large Cheshire town.

With no shortage of mobility retailers, Warrington’s town centre is not only home to Warrington Disability Partnership but also Millercare and Scootamart branches, as well as a new CareCo outlet preparing to launch in early January 2020 just outside the town centre, not to mention various chemists who also stock independent living aids.

With such stiff competition around, it would be the natural reaction for most retailers to lament rivals entering their market, however, for Dave, he sees the entrance of more mobility companies operating in the town as a positive.

“We are always looking for ways that we can work with other partners, in order to best advise clients on the full product range, even if that means referring them to another local provider,” he says.

“It is interesting, as other dealerships are increasing their presence in Warrington and moving in closer to our store, it has actually done us a favour and we have seen our income has increased substantially. It has brought people into the town centre.

“I think what is happening is the consumers have seen that there are more mobility shops and are now saying to themselves that they can go into Warrington town centre and look around two or three stores at a time. It means they have the opportunity to compare products, service and everything else on offer. It also means that there is more awareness of mobility solutions in general, which is only a good thing.”

Unfazed by the mounting competition, Gavin points out that Disability Trading Company’s unique retail model and its association with Warrington Disability Partnership’s core services helps add a unique string to the social enterprise’s bow.

“Of course, our unique offer is that we are a user-led organisation and all profits go back to the charity,” notes Gavin.

“Plus, none of our staff are on incentive bonuses which removes the need for simply selling” adds Dave.

“The people who are our loyal customers are buying into that model of ethical retail, knowing that their purchases are going back into helping support local services, such as our Shopmobility service, luncheon clubs, accessible caravans and narrow-boat.”

Moving beyond retail

Aware of the need, however, to seek new opportunities outside of the traditional mobility retail sphere, Gavin details how the social enterprise is dipping its toes into new waters.

One of the new ideas that the charity is pursuing is introducing its own assistive technology range, with the new enterprise being inspired by Warrington Disability Partnership’s ‘Smart Flat,’ launched just over 12 months ago.

“We are expanding into new products wherever there is a need. If we can be competitive, we will look to move into that market.” Dave Thompson MBE

Located in the grounds of the Cheshire-based charity’s Centre for Independent Living, the initiative is a dedicated, replica living space that features the latest in assistive technology, enabling people to try out and learn about the vast range of solutions available that can transform how people maintain their independence at home.

Featuring a display bedroom, living room and kitchen, the Smart Flat includes a multitude of different assistive tech solutions, including voice and switch operated openers/closers for doors, windows, blinds and curtains; the Amazon Echo; movement sensors; talking glasses; facial recognition security cameras; talking clocks and much more.

Created around the charity’s core idea of information, advice and guidance, the Smart Flat also provides Warrington Disability Partnership with the opportunity to gain invaluable insights into some of the solutions that people are most interested in, opening the door for new commercial opportunities through its Disability Trading Company arm.

“Our smart flat initiative is really going well; it is opening up new opportunities to support people who have dementia, visual and hearing impairments and learning disabilities,” explains Gavin.

“We are looking to import some assistive products directly now to expand our offer and we have already secured four dealerships.

“We have introduced some assistive technology products into our retail stores as well, so it is really going to enhance that side of our commercial operations.”

A desire to diversify

Having introduced a community café after a £1.4 million refurbishment of its Centre for Independent Living, alongside a Mobility Test Track, IT Learning Centre and Mobility Workshop and Service Centre over recent years, it is safe to say that the charity is no stranger to exploring new ideas.

Working to offer a more holistic range of independent living aids to the ranges typically found in mobility retailers, Dave notes that Warrington Disability Partnership and Disability Trading Company are aiming to set themselves apart in the market through continuous diversification.

“…we have been able to focus on the top-end ranges, including some of the big 8mph scooters and the high-end powerchairs” Gavin Thompson

Not just shooting in the dark however, the new initiatives and inspired and informed by its user-led expertise and knowledge gathered from its charitable services, gained from close contact with its client group by a vast community engagement programme that includes attending over 150 local events annually.

“We are expanding into new products wherever there is a need. If we can be competitive, we will look to move into that market,” Dave affirms.

“For example, we are selling the animatronic cats and dogs and we have a lot of products around hearing problems. These aren’t hearing aids as such but more induction loops, amplification systems, doorbells and more.

“We also have a new product around drinking which is a hydrating system, so we are always looking at new products and solutions to introduce to people.”

Unlike many charities that struggle to turn their hand to commercial opportunities, Warrington Disability Partnership benefits from Dave’s expertise, having run his own company before establishing the charity.

“Before my accident 30 years ago, this is actually what we were doing with the business I had back then, with retail and wholesale services” continues Dave.

“We would look at what the market needed and would aim to move into it, rather than sticking to one particular area, such as household goods or frozen foods. We would do anything and everything that complemented our offer, always placing the customer at the heart of our service.”

It is this philosophy that has enabled Warrington Disability Partnership to expand the number of services it offers so successfully over the past 28 years, as well as helping to create a culture of embracing new ideas and the know-how to implement them.

The Warrington Disability Partnership team
The bricks and mortar expansion plan is just one element of the charity’s bigger plans to move into assistive tech distribution

Never afraid to diversify, Dave stresses that it is important for mobility companies to be flexible enough to move and pivot, particularly in a shifting market such as mobility.

“I think companies really need to be able to embrace diversification with the market that is out there at the moment, so it’s important to stay up-to-date with what opportunities are out there and stay in touch with customers & suppliers,” he points out.

“We try to keep ourselves as informed as possible on the trends and what’s new to the market, regularly spending time talking to visitors to our services.

“We also read THIIS online and the magazine all the time, we attend a lot of conferences and exhibitions and we also have manufacturers overseas in the East who we work with directly to produce what we need with quick turnarounds, enabling us to respond to opportunities quickly.”

The bigger picture

The short move to its larger store is part of Warrington Disability Partnership’s wider move to vastly increase and differentiate its product offering to customers, alongside a focus on engaging alternative retail channels beyond just private customers.

“When you walk into your usual mobility store, you will see a typical line of products. We are aiming to take that further and carry a lot more stock item-per-item than what most standard retailers carry, so the choice for customers will be much larger and more varied”, says Dave.

“Beyond our retail stores, we are also starting to work with a lot of nursing and residential homes to introduce not only the traditional mobility ranges but also our assistive tech solutions, especially for older people around dementia products.”

Not one to rest on its laurels, the charity is also in the midst of expanding its retail network alongside growing its product portfolio.

“We’ve got another store opening early January and we are in discussions with several Local Authorities to look at the possibility of running their Independent Living Centres,” confirms Dave.

During a time when many retailers are highlighting the struggle of operating physical stores in an increasingly virtual retail landscape, Dave caps off by justifying the charity’s decision to pursue expanding its physical store portfolio.

“We’ve sat down, looked at our strategy and considered web-based vs bricks & mortar retail and decided that because of our user-led status and the fact that the majority of our team are disabled people, bricks and mortar is the way forward for us, where we can assist people using our lived experiences,” he ends.

“Our strengths lie in working with people face-to-face to offer demonstrations, assessments and share our knowledge with customers. Having physical stores allows us to give valuable information, advice and guidance, followed by the appropriate sales. That’s our strategy and that’s what we are sticking too, for now.”

www.disabilitypartnership.org.uk / www.disabilitytradingcompany.co.uk

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