Retailer Spotlight: Wheelfreedom
Bringing new freedom to customers
Giles Donald, Founder of Wheelfreedom, talks to THIIS about his unique mobility retail model, an innovative new retail space in Chessington and the challenges of opening a showroom during the pandemic…
Shopping is generally thought of as a pleasurable experience for a lot of people, so why shouldn’t people associate that with buying a life-changing mobility product? Giles Donald, Founder of Wheelfreedom, doesn’t see why not. He opened his new showroom in Chessington earlier this year with exactly that goal in mind.
“We feel that coming to our showroom should be an experience that people can enjoy and feel that they are getting the most out of,” states Giles.
“I don’t see why they shouldn’t be excited about the opportunities that these products can bring.”
This determination to offer a stand-out customer experience in the industry is nothing new for the mobility retail maverick. It was this desire to transform how people got hold of their equipment that inspired him to enter the industry over a decade ago.
Setting the wheels in motion
A personal experience led to Giles introduction to the industry back in 2007. It was while working in London for a niche recruitment business that he heard a friend had been having problems finding a wheelchair for a sick relative.
“It was a palliative care scenario and a case of them needing to hire a wheelchair for the short-term. He couldn’t find anything suitable and ended up having to buy something for a substantial amount of money. Shortly afterwards, they were left with an almost-new product and no use for it,” says the Wheelfreedom boss.
Giles and his friend Henry, now a co-director, agreed that there had to be a better way.
“That’s where we came up with our new concept of hiring out equipment,” continues Giles.
“There wasn’t really that kind of thing available at the time. If you wanted to hire a wheelchair, it could be quite complicated and expensive. People would have to leave big deposits and they would more than likely have to go and pick it up.”
Giles and Henry launched Wheelfreedom with the aim of offering a nationwide manual wheelchair hire service with next morning delivery, making it simpler and more convenient for the customer.
The service was aimed at helping people with an immediate need for a standard wheelchair rather than the prescriptive market, highlights Giles.
“It could be someone who has an elderly relative with limited mobility visiting or someone who has left hospital and has been told by the NHS to keep their leg elevated. In these instances, you really need a wheelchair but NHS Trusts generally don’t supply them for the short term.”
The short-term hire service also set the wheels in motion for Giles to look at other ways to help people with particular needs…
To see, touch and try
By 2012, Wheelfreedom was becoming more mainstream and it began to offer powered equipment, such as mobility scooters, for customers to purchase as well as hire. This particular part of the business, however, would only cover London and the South East.
Giles explains: “The new part of the business was focused on products which we needed to assess for and have one of our team hand over. Customer service had always been the number one priority for us in the business and we wanted to make sure we had our own team of engineers looking after our customers. We didn’t want to outsource to third parties.”
From its industrial unit based in London, the company had its own team of assessors visiting people in their homes to assess them for equipment. This home-based assessment service was – and remains – critical to the business.
“We see ourselves as an assessment centre for customers to come and get fitted for the most suitable equipment” Giles Donald
However, Giles also saw demand from people who wanted to visit an environment where they could get a full understanding of the different products and models available, seeing and trying a range before making that all-important purchase.
“If someone is new to the industry and they are looking for a prescriptive powerchair, for example, they often want to see what the whole market has to offer. We were already partnered with the major manufacturers and so that was where the idea for our new showroom stemmed from,” says Giles.
Location, location, location
Finding the perfect location for the company’s new HQ took a couple of years, he says. The team were originally looking at a site closer to where they had been based in London. After being unable to find what they were looking for, though, they decided to extend their search area a year ago. Eventually, they found the perfect spot for their business in Chessington.
“We’ve got a great team in the business and we really wanted to make sure the location worked for them,” emphasises Giles.
“Our site in Chessington is working out well as it is very well connected into London and is just off the A3 and M25. Being a little bit further out of town has also given us a bit more flexibility in what we can do with the space.
“We have lots of onsite parking and the layout of the unit means we have a customer-facing environment at the front but we also have [hidden] space at the back for our decontamination unit, workshop, warehousing and so on.”
Located on a business park rather than on the high street, the business does not have any signage or footfall. Giles stresses that the new showroom is a departure from the ‘traditional’ mobility shop.
“When you are trying to cater for so many product ranges, it becomes impossible to do that from a small space and you can’t give the customer the choice and experience. Being able to have enough space and a large number of products is key,” he continues.
“We see ourselves as an assessment centre for customers to come and get assessed for the right equipment. People are booking an appointment for a certain piece of equipment rather than coming to browse as in the more traditional retail spaces.”
Keeping it on the down-low
Wheelfreedom’s showroom opened without too much fanfare just before the autumn lockdown last year. Giles says that they deliberately didn’t tell people about it.
“It sounds crazy but when we opened, we always wanted to open very quietly. We didn’t want a flood of customers to come and not be able to meet their needs properly,” explains the retail leader.
“We wanted to get feedback from our customers, check our systems worked correctly and make sure our staff had all the correct training. There was no big unveiling. The only way people have found out about us is through word of mouth.”
A centre of excellence
Consistently prioritising the experience of the customer, Wheelfreedom’s retail model prides itself on the level of expertise it can offer, details Giles.
When a customer makes an appointment at Wheelfreedom’s showroom, the mobility boss says they can expect to be given tailored information about what they need from a specialist with in-depth knowledge of a specific product base.
The HQ’s onsite workshop also enables the retailer to make repairs and adjustments quickly.
Maintaining its commitment to ensuring customers work with dedicated Wheelfreedom team members, the company boasts a fleet of vans with a team of mobile engineers, while new purchases are delivered and set up by its own staff – a service which is included in the price.
A key feature of Wheelfreedom’s service is that if a user does have a problem with their equipment, the company will loan out one of its own products so that the customer is not stranded.
“We have a large fleet of loan scooters and prescriptive powerchairs, and so on. So, if a customer’s product needs to come in for repair, we can keep them mobile and independent,” he says.
Importantly, Giles asserts that it is Wheelfreedom’s aftersales service where the company differentiates itself from others in the industry.
“Price is not the most important thing,” says Giles. “The customer needs to know their product is going to be backed up and looked after properly. The key thing for us is customer service.”
Rather than relying on big deals or discounts, Giles says customers will instead find “good value and a transparent price” at Wheelfreedom, coupled with its customer-centric service and product expertise.
“Having one centre of excellence means we can have product specialists on hand” Giles Donald
Importantly, he stresses staff are not on commission or sales bonuses so a customer has the peace of mind the team have their best interests at heart.
“Having one centre of excellence means we can have product specialists on hand to advise and measure customers. We want to make sure the customer is getting the correct product that they can be comfortable in for the long-term,” he says.
“With rise and recline chairs, for instance, it is critical if a customer is expecting to be in one for many hours a day that it fits. The only way it will fit someone well is if it’s measured correctly and made bespoke.”
Unlike its national equipment hiring services, Giles says that it is imperative that retail customers live within a strict catchment area – covering London and the South East only. According to the Wheelfreedom founder, it ensures the company is able to provide an efficient back-up service.
Bringing style to the showroom
Arguably, the most striking aspect of Wheelfreedom’s new HQ is its spacious and contemporary retail space.
For those that remember Betterlife’s concept store, Wheelfreedom’s space may look slightly familiar. That is not by chance, as the retailer engaged the same design team responsible for LloydsPharamcy’s award-winning mobility shop concept in Leeds.
Ensuring customers are met with a spacious and welcoming environment when they visit was at the top of the list when designing the unique showroom, says Giles. He notes it is about striking the right balance and being mindful of not cramming too many products into one space.
“When you’ve got a whole load of equipment piled in on top of each other, the customer is not getting a real understanding or experience of it,” says Giles.
“On the other hand, we didn’t want so few products that we were having to show customers brochures because they have only touched, felt and tried a couple of examples.”
He continues: “Some of our customers are very experienced users of products and they know exactly what they’re looking for.
“Others are new to the industry and want to sit down with a cup of coffee and take the time to get a good understanding of the products, maybe come in more than once and bring along a couple of family members so that they can feel confident in what they’re purchasing.”
To this end, the showroom has consultation zones and eye-catching displays that are talking points in themselves.
The impact of COVID
Deciding to remain open during the lockdowns, Giles highlights that in the spring, the company had to scale back massively.
He recounts on just how much of a challenging time it was for all of his staff, with the government’s furlough scheme and support packages proving invaluable. At the same time, Giles made sure the office, workshop and his team of engineers were available to customers.
Customer demand dropped during this time, he says, and maintenance callouts reduced as people stayed at home more and were therefore encountering fewer problems. This meant fewer engineers were needed on the road, however, when people did have problems, Giles wanted to make sure that his technicians were ready to act.
He notes: “The reality is if a powerchair user is in their home and it breaks down, they can’t get from one room to another. That is an immediate need and we needed to be there to fix that.”
During that first lockdown, Giles says the focus was on its customers’ wellbeing, rather than generating revenue.
“It would have been cheaper for us to shut the doors, come back in two months’ time and crack on from there but, from our point of view, it was never an option as our customers needed us.”
The period following the first lockdown offered some light relief for Giles and the team, with the industry bouncing back in July.
“When we first came out of lockdown, the levels of COVID were much reduced, certainly in the area around us, and there was an element of a lot of people wanting to get on with their lives as normal – or the ‘new normal’,” he explains.
“Obviously, those most at risk were still shielding but a lot of people were wanting to get out and enjoy the good weather, and get that piece of equipment.”
Everything became quiet again during the second lockdown in November. By this time, the Wheelfreedom team had moved into their new HQ in Chessington and Giles felt confident about having a solid foundation capable of weathering the looming disruptions.
Importantly, Giles asserts that the business has gone above and beyond to ensure it ticks every box from a COVID-secure point of view.
Discussing the steps it has implemented, he says: “During the lockdown period, we were open for appointments only and gave customers exclusive use of the whole showroom so they knew they were in a safe environment and everything was sanitised.
“Even now, we book appointments so customers can come in and have exclusive use of an area in the showroom that is focused around their particular product base.”
The product specialists carrying out customer assessments are also kitted out in the relevant PPE, he stresses.
Customers, he says, can feel comfortable that they are entering a safe environment; an airy space with air conditioning that’s as COVID-secure as possible.
Looking to the future
Giles is not looking to roll out multiple shops. As he sees it, the mobility market is split down two sides: prescriptive and high-street retail. Wheelfreedom is looking to combine the best from both in one flagship showroom that is a destination for customers.
“We have the stock and numerous products across multiple ranges for those who want to choose from the widest selection of equipment, in an environment where they can see and try it all,” he maintains.
“But we also ensure we always have product specialists on hand with the in-depth knowledge and experience required to provide specialist advice on each individual piece of equipment, from high-end prescriptive powerchairs to rise and recline chairs.”
The internet continues to be a strong force in the industry and, as Giles sees it, this is not necessarily as damaging as it was perceived in the past.
“10 years ago, I think there was a tendency for businesses to advertise a product and customers to go for the lowest price they could find. I’d like to think that’s starting to do full circle now,” he continues.
“I think consumers are better informed. They will use the internet to research and check they’re choosing a provider who is credible and able to offer a great service. Customers now have so many platforms in which to let fellow consumers know if a company is not delivering on its promises; it is far harder for a business who doesn’t care about its customer to succeed in the medium- to long-term.
“While there will always be the consumer who wants the lowest price possible, I believe there’s a growing number now who think that while price is important it needs to be balanced with other factors.”
This, he believes, is good news for the industry and for those businesses that put their time into making sure they’re getting the experience right for the customer.
Not only contending with COVID-19, Giles, like many businesses in the sector, is also preparing for the potential fallout caused by Brexit. The passionate retailer suggests that communication with both suppliers and the customer is key for managing the likely disruption.
“There may be delays on stock and that’s going to impact us so we will have to be careful about how we manage our customers’ expectations and really arm ourselves with as much information as we can from our suppliers. The relationship and communication with suppliers will be critical during this time.”
Having a large showroom space has already enabled Wheelfreedom to expand its product ranges of non-prescriptive wheelchairs, rollators and furniture.
“We didn’t do a huge amount of furniture before, however, our assessment expertise aligns with it perfectly,” adds Giles.
“If a customer is looking for a rise and recline chair that they are going to be spending 10 hours a day in, it’s critical that it fits them correctly and our team already have the expertise to make that happen.”
By staying true to the commitment to keep the customer experience at the heart of the business, Wheelfreedom finds itself poised to continue its exciting development.
“Having one centre of excellence means we can have product specialists on hand” Giles Donald
For Giles, managing to provide customers with access to the right equipment that can transform their lives continues to be the most gratifying aspect of his work. It is that motivation that continues to see Wheelfreedom develop 14 years on since delivering its first wheelchair.
“Quite often, people can have had particular mobility challenges for years and haven’t been aware of what is available to them, or they had never really had anyone spend the time to drill down into exactly what their issues are and how to resolve them,” he finishes.
“It’s amazing to be able to make such a difference to somebody’s way of life.”
Bold ideas for a big space
When Retail Experience Design was approached to design the new mobility retail space for Wheelfreedom, the team knew this was an unparalleled opportunity to transform the experience of customers searching for the right mobility equipment.
The brief was to achieve an experience-led space to exhibit Wheelfreedom’s large array of mobility equipment – a forward-thinking, flexible, and practical design, within a limited budget.
It wasn’t just about making a lovely-looking space, says Dean Waugh, Creative Director of Retail Experience Design.
“We looked at how we could get people to circulate around the space and make it an interesting experience of customers.
“We wanted the customers to understand what they are seeing without being overawed by all the products jumping out at them.”
Careful consideration had to be given as to where each product would go, with space designated for the key category areas. The products are very much part of the displays and the design team added unique touches to show off key products.
Says Dean: “Changing floor finishings and adding in props and graphics can help to create a solid display area for products so that they don’t look like they have just been left there.”
An open car boot in one area shows how a piece of mobility equipment can fit inside it. In another, a key product positioned on an angled plinth elevates the eyes upwards.
Another striking feature to greet customers entering the showroom is the full-height illuminated cube display showing different types of active user wheelchairs.
The showroom incorporates Wheelfreedom’s signature colours and features bold illustrations, aspirational lifestyle photography, and statement brand messaging.
Says Dean: “Crucially, the final design is sensitive to the customer journey, whilst touchpoints ensure adequate personal space, providing the opportunity for customers to understand the products, their features, and benefits.”