In the HME industry, there’s no doubt we come across equipment that can sometimes make a person’s head spin at the high price it sells for. It’s not uncommon to see some of our products carry a street price comparable to a fairly decent used automobile.
In our Lift&Go division, where we specialize in adaptive lifts and transfer devices for personal mobility products (such as scooter and wheelchair lifts), calls come in somewhat regularly for information on our variety of wheelchair lifts. These devices typically aren’t covered by insurance, so most of our customers have to pay out of pocket for these items. The customers that usually find us through our website are those that are no stranger to online-shopping. They have done their homework and have looked over several different websites.
What I find is that many customers often compare our pricing to the price points of online retail outlets that sell the same thing. I usually have to explain that there are many differences between the business model we follow, and the way the online stores sell cheap medical equipment online. For one, online outlets can sell equipment cheaper because they do not actually stock the equipment. Most often, they simply take an order over the internet or phone, then drop ship the device directly from the manufacturer. They never touch it or purchase it under terms… they collect the customer’s payment, turn a small profit, then place the order with the manufacturer to have it directly shipped. The sale often ends right there.
Compared to the overhead necessary to employ technicians that earn decent wages and get benefits, buy tools, fleets and maintain all of that inventory and then have a shop with all the costs associated there, the idea of a website paying hosting with some third party customer support paid by the ticket is a lot less overhead to absorb. They may have a lot of costs up front for development and infrastructure, but after this, it’s more of a numbers game and the ease of finding and ordering the equipment online at a great price ends up bringing in a lot of traffic. However, some things aren’t always best to purchase online.
While we at Summit have often considered online drop shipping, we have come to a realization that most medical equipment requires personal interaction and support. If a patient and their caregiver is not properly trained on something, safety precautions not adhered to, or proper setup and function not verified, a patient can put themselves and others at risk. If a device fails, we have to be available to handle service and support, otherwise a patient can be left in a state of extreme inconvenience or discomfort until their issue can be resolved.
A good example would be our home accessibility products: while there’s always the exception of someone with direct experience and technical skill, most inexperienced individuals are unaware of the peculiarities of installing one of these items, correctly. A stairlift that isn’t properly installed could lead to injury for the user and possibly others, and in severe circumstances, even death. Even if the results of a haphazardly installed piece of equipment are not of a severe nature, it’s likely an improperly installed unit will not operate correctly and exhibit issues within a small timeframe. And once this happens, that customer is stuck, both literally and figuratively.
How is an online retailer 3,000 miles away going to help you when you are facing an issue and need immediate help?
While we at Summit have often considered online drop shipping, we have come to a realization that most medical equipment requires personal interaction and support.
We get a few calls here and there from individuals who have purchased equipment from an online store and run into an issue. They first call the online store they made their purchase from and ask for help with a warranty item or service request under their warranty. The on-line customer service may try to help them with a few prompts read out of a handbook on their end (the call may even be taken by a third party customer support call center), and if the problem persists, they tell them to contact the manufacturer. After contacting the manufacturer, the customer is then directed to contact a local dealer to handle service issues. So then the customer contacts a local dealer and the local dealer either refuses to service their device purchased elsewhere or charges a bunch of money to handle the item, even under warranty. This leads the customer to become upset because their understanding is that it’s supposed to be a covered warranty issue. The reality is that the local dealer has to cover costs that would normally be covered by their margins on the original sale of the device.
TL;DR: That’s an awful lot of song and dance to get something taken care of when you are dealing with someone over a massive distance with no local presence.
We have also taken calls from individuals who order equipment online and something goes wrong with the order. Maybe a part is incorrectly shipped, or maybe they unintelligibly ordered the wrong part and need something else. Whatever the case, in most instances, they end up paying a restocking fee and return freight. At this point, they’ve not only ended up spending the same amount of money they would have had through a local dealer, but they are still at square one in having the part installed, not to mention the hassle of having to go through the motions to take care of this. Some of our callers have said that the return freight and restocking is so high that they ended up spending far more than they would have if they had just consulted a local representative that could have made sure they were getting what they needed the first time.
When you purchase equipment through a local dealer, you likely pay a little more, but it’s for good reason. These companies depend on making some profit to stay in business so they can be there for their customers when they have an issue and are there to say, “It’s Okay, we’re going to get this taken care of for you and make it right.” The local companies have a responsibility and liability to make sure that you get the right items and they are correctly configured and installed. This requires them to send technicians (often out-of-state) to be trained on their dime. It often requires them to have work vans, and tools, and paid technicians that make a decent wage because of their working knowledge and experience in fixing items. The local company has a reputation to uphold, and they also have local watchdogs and accreditation to adhere to.
For many of our customers who purchase lifts and other equipment though us, we understand that they could purchase items cheaper online, so we make efforts to compete as much as we can on pricing. However, we also stress that by purchasing through a local dealer, we are accountable, and this is a biggie: we’re there to take care of issues, should they pop up.
So if you are considering purchasing a medical device out of pocket and you are going to depend on this equipment to help you out with your daily routine, it makes sense to consider the long term gain of investing in equipment through a local source that can help you with service and support rather than saving a few dollars in the short-term by purchasing from an online drop-shipper.
If you are considering purchasing equipment online, it’s advisable to pay close attention to the company’s policies regarding support, returns and other issues that can be encountered not only at the time of sale but throughout the duration of your equipment’s warranty period and life-cycle. You should definitely get all of your ducks in a row and make sure to ask questions related to how service is provided and what kind of guarantees are in place to resolve issues. At the end of the day, you are often purchasing from an entity without local roots, local representation and local resolution.