These past several months have not been easy. COVID-19 has created a rapid change in consumer lifestyles and shopping habits. The pandemic has changed the way we socialize, the way we work and the way we live. It also put a lot of pressure on home medical equipment (HME) providers to pivot quickly in order to survive.
COVID-19 also made many realize they were not prepared—and brought into focus what they must do to be better prepared in the “corona-conomy.” These challenges are a breeding ground for innovation, solutions and opportunities. This pandemic has accelerated the need for e-commerce and has redefined how it should be used. The key is knowing what technology to use, when to use it and understanding how it works.
I have been talking about e-commerce as an HME retail necessity for a long time, even while many providers felt they needed to focus solely on expanding in-store business with increased retail floor space and better planograms. The data shows that e-commerce revenue rose during the pandemic—and will continue to do so moving forward. It is time for this industry to make a serious change if we want to adapt and stay relevant.
Here are five imperatives to consider as you set up your online retail sales strategy.
1. Create a memorable experience for your patients.
You have a huge advantage over Amazon and other online retailers. Amazon sells everything to anyone in a technologically convenient manner. You have a dedicated showroom and live customer service employees that are focused on the needs of your customers. You know your patients as individuals, have a more personal connection with them and understand their individual needs.
You are an expert in your field. You are part of a local community. You must train your staff to capitalize on this relationship and turn patients into a loyal customer base, influencers and ambassadors for your operation. What is needed is a way to extend your physical showroom to a technologically convenient online showroom. If you can bridge that gap, there will be significant positive impact on your reputation and your bottom line.
2. Avoid these myths about your website.
I have heard just about every reason a provider avoids e-commerce and competing with online dealers on their turf. Let’s look at some myths that may have kept you from adopting an online retail strategy.
Myth: My products can only be sold in a store or face to face.
Truth: The reality is that many products your patients use are already available online.
Myth: My patients don’t buy online.
Truth: Your patients are almost certainly already buying online from someone else.
Myth: I do not have the space to add more items.
Truth: You do not need more space to expand the number of products you offer via drop shipping.
Myth: I don’t have the time to build a new website.
Truth: Current website technology can make building robust websites easy without a large investment in time.
Myth: I don’t have the staff to manage the website.
Truth: Many e-commerce platforms now have automated back-end integration.
Myth: A custom site is expensive.
Truth: The cost of building websites on a software as a service (SaaS) model may not be as expensive as you think.
Don’t fall in the trap of assuming your website is “fine.” Because technology is a fast-moving target, it is critical that you reevaluate your existing website and e-commerce business on a regular basis. Your website should be updated with new content, new products and the newest technology. You are limiting your success by not using your website as an additional revenue source with real e-commerce capability. Your website should be driving more sales, bringing visitors into your store, making the phone ring, driving your overhead down, keeping patients happy and making you more competitive. It can also keep you relevant during turbulent social and economic times.
3. Make sure your website has these must-have features.
While there is no comprehensive one-size-fits-all solution, here is a list of features that you should have or should be in the process of adding to your existing website.
- Basic information like address, phone number, hours, etc.
- Current safety and social distancing policies
- A list of your key products and services
- Easy-to-find contact information so visitors can call or email you
- Product catalog with user-friendly navigation
- Product pages with detailed descriptions, guides and videos for easy usage
- Product catalog for items available in store and products available online only
- Real e-commerce with “Add to Cart” that allows patients to purchase items online direct from your website
Real e-commerce is one of the most important features and it happens to be the feature that is missing most often. If HME retail expansion of any kind is in your business plan, you need to prioritize having a website with a product catalog that allows your patients to make a purchase and pay securely online.
4. Empower your staff.
Your catalog must be current, inventory availability must be visible and the ability to execute a sale online must be immediate. You can no longer rely on in-store, phone and fax orders. You must extend your reach, be where your patients are and process orders in a way that is convenient for them.
With true e-commerce, your patients can place orders on their own. Your staff can accept and place orders on behalf of patients who are in the store or calling in. And your drivers and staff can take orders in the patients’ home.
This also means having a system that is tied to an accurate product availability feed. The idea of a patient calling you or visiting your facility to place an order or check availability is outdated, inefficient and unnecessary.
5. Decide between a catalog & an e-commerce platform.
Which one is right for you? Let’s start by defining both. The absolute minimum you should have is a website with a product catalog. You may be one that subscribes to a service that offers a preloaded catalog. This is good for small entities that do not plan on growing retail sales and are working with a focused set of products that will not change.
E-commerce platforms, on the other hand, will typically provide back-end functionality out of the box and can be deployed without a lot of expensive customization. Many platforms have the ability to scale without a major investment in development cost as you grow. Most importantly, you should look for a platform that will easily integrate with back-end systems for order automation, fulfillment and inventory management and secure payment processing.
At the end of the day, your patients will shop with you as long as you provide the safety, security, confidence, personal service, convenience and value they seek.
Kamal Haddad is founder and CEO of Health Mobius LLC, a medical products distribution company that builds and manages web stores. Health Mobius provides easy, low-cost, fully managed e-commerce solutions to HME and DME providers, pharmacies, home health care agencies and senior care and medical facilities.