From the February 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

You can't buy happiness. But if a new trend in retailing has any merit, perhaps you can buy better health. That is, you and the millions of people nationwide who have health and mobility problems or who care for people who do.

This new breed of store combines the products and services of an old-fashioned medical equipment dealership with merchandising savvy and a level of service that makes Nordstrom look uninterested. The formats range from intimate boutiques to sprawling superstores, but they share a common goal: Changing the way Americans shop for everything from wheelchairs to blood pressure monitors.

"These are not the dingy surgical supply houses most of us think of when we think of medical supplies," says Marie Griffin, editor in chief of Drug Store News. As the population ages, people are going to need more help--recovering from hospital stays, coping with mobility limitations, dealing with chronic illnesses, and living with a panoply of major and minor health problems. Yet most people don't know what kinds of health aids are available to them, let alone where to find them.

Merchandisers who can enlighten consumers as to the possibilities--and ignite their retail impulses in the process--should enjoy a healthy and growing market.

Selling Health

Tending to illness and recuperation is nothing new. But recent demographic and economic changes make home health care a topical issue right now.

For one thing, our population is aging. The oldest of the baby boomers have hit their 50s, an age when health consciousness often takes a turn for the serious. And even as the boomers are facing their own maladies, they're also often caring for parents in their 70s and 80s whose medical challenges are even more intense.

The result is a boom in sales of home health equipment and supplies. For instance, San Francisco market research firm Frost & Sullivan reports that the overall market for home diagnostics and monitoring products will reach $1.44 billion this year--and it's expected to top $2 billion by the year 2000. Within this category are such items as diabetic blood-glucose monitoring products, blood-pressure monitoring devices, respiratory therapy products, and pregnancy and ovulation test kits. Also hot: bath safety products, mobility aids and incontinence supplies.

What's at work here is more than a surge in the number of people with health problems. It's also a change in attitude. "Baby boomers clearly are spoiled by the retail experiences they're used to," says Joyce Greenberg, CEO and founder of Take Good Care, a Springfield, New Jersey-based chain of health-care product superstores. "In the past, a [medical equipment and supply] business operated almost exclusively on referrals from health-care professionals." Today, there's a growing desire on the part of consumers to seek out their own help.

What Ails Consumers

At first glance, retailers might not seem like the best sources of assistance for the physically and medically challenged. After all, serious conditions call for professional help. But today's medical system leaves plenty of gaps. It's not simply that cost-conscious insurance companies are sending patients home "quicker and sicker." It's that the limits of traditional medical care often fall short of addressing all of a patient's needs.

A case in point: When Paul Schickling sees diabetic consumers at his Fountain Valley, California, store, Guardian for Diabetics, they've already seen their doctors, heard their diagnoses, and even received recommendations on how to deal with their conditions. But that doesn't mean they're ready to cope.

There is equipment to select--blood glucose meters and maybe insulin injection systems. Once chosen, that equipment has to be operated safely and accurately. Nutrition and the judicious regulation of food intake are vital--and often mystifying to the novice. Add complications such as impaired vision to the picture, and you've got a consumer in dire need of service.

Schickling, who is a pharmacist, can't cure his customers. But he and his wife, Clarice, a registered dietitian, can offer helpful products and train customers in their use. They hold seminars, provide advice and furnish much-needed support because, as Schickling puts it, "[Patients] need to talk about what's happening to them."

Schickling isn't alone in realizing this market has potential. Retail chains are springing up nationwide, including Greenberg's superstore, Take Good Care, which boasts a staggering 20,000 square feet of merchandise. In addition to its 20 departments (ranging from mobility to orthotics, back care, homeopathy and daily-living aids), Take Good Care features a conference area for in-store seminars and expert help with third-party billing.

Greenberg concedes the very thing that makes health-care retailing exciting is also its greatest challenge: "We've had to find ways to get the word out that there's a whole new way of shopping for these products," Greenberg says. "We're very encouraged by the response so far. But there's an educational process [to helping consumers learn these stores exist]."

Teach Them Well

Understanding how to educate consumers is perhaps the number-one priority for aspiring health-care retailers. Opportunities exist for new enterprises but only where entrepreneurs can do an exceptional job of merchandising, community outreach and providing customer service.

For most entrepreneurs, niche marketing is key. Although the superstore concept is hot, the millions of dollars required to open a mega-location are beyond the scope of many new business owners. Instead, smaller ventures like Schickling's focus on one specific market--diabetics or specialties as diverse as back care, allergy relief, and herbal and homeopathic remedies.

Entrepreneurs in this field must be consummate retailers. It's not enough for a health-care store to be clean and attractive; it should also be informative. "I'm constantly trying to get [home health retailers] to think about their in-store displays," says Jack Evans, whose Malibu, California-based Global Media Marketing provides marketing advice to health-care providers nationwide. Evans advocates setting up "vignettes" that
depict a well-equipped bath or a state-of-the-art wheelchair so customers can see what different products do and why they might be useful.

Knowledgeable service should be a given in this business. Good service might include anything from teaching a client to use diagnostic equipment to fitting them for prosthetics. Hosting seminars and support groups is smart marketing--and a common practice among savvy health retailers.

Reaching consumers is essential, but so is reaching out to the health-care community. Evans estimates as much as two-thirds of revenues at home health stores come from managed care and Medicare referrals. To that end, health-care retailers must establish solid relationships with local doctors, therapists and hospitals. Expertise in third-party insurance billing is also important, although it's possible to farm your billing out to specialized firms.

Healthy Growth

Because this industry is still relatively new, this is not a business for entrepreneurs who dislike innovation and change. Specialty retailers can expect increased competition from superstores, which will face still more competition from mass merchants and drugstore chains eager to tap into a growing market.

On the other hand, retailers who understand their markets and who bring intelligence and compassion to the task can enjoy both surging revenues and strong customer loyalty.

"The attitude that's emerging is one that says, `We're not intimidated. We're not ashamed,' " says Greenberg. "[Having an illness or disability] doesn't mean you can't live a full life. In fact, our whole point is that you can."

Want To Know More?

Contact SEMCO Productions (770-641-8181) for information on Medtrade and The Future Show, trade shows that serve the home medical equipment and supply market. Medtrade '97 will take place October 7-10 in New Orleans; The Future Show '97 is slated for May 22-23 in Las Vegas.

HomeCare magazine covers the medical supply marketplace. Seventeen issues annually cost $59. For information, call (800) 543-4116, extension 480, or write to HomeCare, Miramar Communications, P.O. Box 8987, Malibu, CA 90265-8987.

Although Drug Store News does not specifically cover health products retailing, it tracks market trends. For subscription information, call (813) 627-6707, or write to Drug Store News, 425 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022.

Gayle Sato Stodder covers entrepreneurship for various publications. She lives and works in Manhattan Beach, California.

Contact Sources

Drug Store News, 425 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022, (212) 756-5220;

Global Media Marketing, 5703 Calpine, Malibu, CA 90265, (310) 457-7333;

Guardian for Diabetics, 10810 Warner, #8, Fountain Valley, CA 92708, (714) 968-7997;

Take Good Care, 160 Rte. 22, Springfield, NJ 07081, (201) 912-0200.