The Office Of Fair Trading (OFT) has launched its investigation into the way that various mobility and daily living aids are sold. Their study will look at wheelchairs, scooters, stairlifts, bath aids, hoists, profiling beds and specialist seating.
Many of us have expressed concern over the years about some businesses operating in this area, and some dubious practices, from high-pressure selling techniques to exorbitant pricing, and equally concerning, companies with no experience of the special needs market selling specialist products to individuals without being able to give appropriate advice.
The OFT is concentrating on three main questions: can consumers access the right information so that they can purchase the right mobility aid for them; are suppliers treating consumers fairly; is competition in the wheelchair sector working well? These elements formed the bulk of responses to the organisation's consultation, with concern expressed that it is difficult to make an informed decision when purchasing a mobility aid, and that wheelchair sales in particular might not be as competitive as they should be, because of the structure of the market, and purchasing decisions made by public bodies.
Ann Pope, OFT Senior Director of Goods, said: "Mobility aids are important products for elderly and disabled people, which can significantly improve the quality of their lives. For many, they are an absolute necessity. Consultation with the industry, consumer groups and others has supported our initial view that there are consumer and competition issues in this sector that need examining to see if outcomes for consumers can be improved."
Independent Living has been operating for well over a decade now, providing impartial information to help people make the right choice of mobility aids. During this time, we have seen supermarkets, with no knowledge of how to assess a person's needs, stocking items like rollators, which need to be chosen with care. Equally, we have seen some Disabled Living Centres, which used to provide unbiased advice on a range of options, move into selling aids themselves, thereby removing a rare facility to try out different products without commercial pressures. We hear stories most weeks of individuals who have bought unsuitable products, either because they have come across a website which seems to be selling cheaply, or because an over-enthusiastic salesperson has persuaded them that they really need whatever it is he or she is trying to sell.
Good, caring service is available, from very many excellent suppliers – often, commercial organisations are doing a better job of giving impartial advice than the people you would expect to be giving it. Reputable companies would prefer not to make a sale than to sell something inappropriately: and in the long term, that attitude pays dividends, as consumers learn that they can trust you to have their interests at heart. But most people approach the buying of a mobility aid as complete novices; it is not, after all, something that is needed on a regular basis, unless you have a long-term disability, or are caring for someone in that situation. How does a newbie tell the difference between good, honest suppliers and the other sort? It isn't always easy, and sadly, membership of trade organisations doesn't always guarantee the highest standards, as a Which? investigation a few years ago demonstrated: the only company – out of the 11 investigated – which they ranked as "good", was not a member of the BHTA, whereas all those that received a ranking of just "OK", according to the BHTA's own code of conduct, were members…
The OFT report will be published in September, and we will certainly keep you up-to-date with its findings. Meanwhile, you can add your opinion and experiences to the debate, by commenting below!