Medical Mailers Supersizing Merchandise

It’s no secret that American consumers are getting fatter. According to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 64% of American adults weigh too much. Of those, 52% are considered overweight, with a body mass index (BMI) — a measurement of body weight relative to a person’s height — of 25.0-29.9. Nearly as many are considered obese, with a BMI of 30.0 or higher. “Morbidly obese” refers to individuals more than 100 lbs. above their ideal weight.

During the past few years, numerous apparel marketers have expanded their range of sizes to include clothing for “plus-size” women and “big and tall” men. Some medical supply catalogers are also adding to their product offerings to accommodate the burgeoning bariatric — morbidly obese — patient population.

New Britain, CT-based Moore Medical Corp. offers many of its products in oversize dimensions and with additional weight capacity, says director of direct marketing Tim Bidwell. During the last few years, the cataloger of medical and surgical supplies has been increasing its selection of products such as exam tables, ambulance transfer cots, and scales that can withstand up to 600 lbs. These products typically have a 350-lb. weight capacity. The company also carries dressing gowns that are twice as big as gowns used for nonobese patients. One product Moore Medical sells, manufacturer Graham Medical’s AmpleWear gown, is available in size 5X.

“In the last year especially, there’s been a general push in the medical market to accommodate obese patients,” Bidwell says. The number of products geared toward bariatric patients is growing at a similar rate as the levels of obesity in the country, he says — making the bariatric market one with great growth potential. “There are products now available for bariatric patients that were not around, or were much more difficult to obtain, a few years ago,” Bidwell says.

Columbus, OH-based medical equipment and supplies company Medical Resources, an online-only cataloger, is also benefiting from the growing bariatric market. So far this year the demand for bariatric products has soared 200%-300%, says general manager Randy Reichenbach. “Requests for the products mushroomed and exploded to the point where we were getting a call each week, and then two to three times a week,” says Reichenbach.

At Russellville, MO-based Alliance Medical, marketing director Holly Stitt says she’s seen demand for bariatric equipment “progress — not overwhelmingly, but it’s progressing.”

The medical equipment and supplies cataloger has been selling a large-body service (LBS) plastic unit, a device used in conjunction with the stretcher, for more than five years. The LBS folds out to create an extended platform over the stretcher, in effect increasing the stretcher’s width. From July 2002 to July 2003, Alliance Medical had sold four LBS devices. Between July 2003 and July 2004, the company sold 12 of these mechanisms to its 7,000 customers nationwide.

Special needs, special prices

Two segments of Moore Medical’s customer base that have a particularly strong need for bariatric products are emergency medical services (EMS) providers and correctional facilities. EMS workers need transport devices, such as cots, to lift obese individuals into the ambulance. As for prisons, they try to keep medical costs down by treating ill prisoners inhouse, rather than paying for a hospital stay and two guards to transport each individual, so they need nearly every oversize product that Moore sells.

This year Moore added two new bariatric products from Stryker EMS to its EMS/Fire Rescue Emergency Medical Supplies catalog. The MX Pro Bariatric Transport is a $5,450 cot that can support a person weighing up to 1,600 lbs. once he is in the ambulance. To get the morbidly obese patient into the vehicle, EMS workers can use the $428 Bariatric Transfer Flat, which also has the capacity to hold 1,600 lbs.

Reichenbach says that hospitals have a need for special seating for the obese, who cannot fit into the relatively narrow constraints of the typical armchair. Some hospitals have also asked Medical Resources to outfit it with stepstools that can accommodate up to 1,000 lbs. Reichenbach says the company’s bariatric wheelchairs, which can support more than 600 lbs., are also in demand. “You can’t put a bariatric patient in a regular chair. They won’t fit,” he points out. “They have to be made extra wide and extra strong.”

The heftier weight capacity comes with a heftier price tag. “There’s definitely a cost factor,” Bidwell points out. “There’s an upcharge to handling larger patients, and at this point, it’s somewhat of a specialty product.” Some bariatric supplies cost more than twice as much as a regular-size version of the same products. While Moore sells a case of 50 regular-size hospital gowns from Graham Medical for $26, for example, a case of 25 bariatric AmpleWear gowns sells for $57.

The higher costs often stem from the need for mechanical extras such as larger motors for bariatric exam tables, which need to have the ability to take a person weighing more than 350 lbs. from a reclined to an upright position. The products also need to be more durable than those used for nonobese patients, says Bidwell.

Prices for bariatric products at Medical Resources can be more than 250% higher than what the company charges for regular-size versions of the same equipment. For instance, while a waiting-room chair for an average-weight person would cost about $150, Reichenbach says, a bariatric chair would cost $450-$1,000. “The products not only have to hold more weight, but the bariatric patients have to be able to get out of them, so they’re made a little higher,” he explains. “The supports have to be stronger so that when they sit down they don’t plop down and hurt themselves.”

Other than the inclusion of a separate bariatric products link on its Website, Reichenbach says the company does not have a separate marketing strategy for its bariatric products. He says that so far there has been no need, with hospitals in need of these specialty supplies seeking the items out themselves on the Website.

No spin-offs yet

Despite the growing need for bariatric products, Bidwell says he does not foresee Moore creating catalogs specifically for the market, since the obese population still composes a minority of the patients served by the facilities that purchase from Moore.

Nonetheless, “I certainly would want to be recognized as a source of products for the care of bariatric patients,” Bidwell adds. “That might mean promotions that position us that way for our customer base.” The company’s field sales force has been trained to include information on Moore Medical’s bariatric product offerings during their sales pitches to prospective customers.

In its print catalog, Alliance includes information on its bariatric products, but it does not devote a separate section to them. Stitts says the products are listed separately with photos only when the product is available only in bariatric dimensions. Otherwise, bariatric SKUs are listed in the product description along with the other size options. — Additional reporting by Heather Retzlaff

More Than Medical Equipment…

Suppliers of medical equipment aren’t the only marketers that are expanding their merchandise lines to accommodate obese consumers. Apparel marketers have, of course, offered plus-size clothing for years. In addition to stalwarts such as Roaman’s and Lane Bryant, players such as Zaftique have entered the field more recently.

Beyond apparel, catalogers selling office and school furniture have introduced chairs and desks suitable for use by obese individuals. C&H Distributors, for one, sells chairs for “big and tall people” that can support up to 400 lbs. School Specialty offers “A-plus size” chairs that are 30% larger than standard seats and recommended for “athletes and larger students.” FlagHouse, whose four catalogs sell equipment and furnishings for the the physical rehab and recreation markets, offers mobility products that can support up to 700 lbs. and gymnastics platforms that can handle up to 650 lbs. Dynamic Living, which specializes in housewares and other products for the elderly and the physically impaired, sells scales, bath chairs, support poles, and other products for those weighing more than 300 lbs.

The Amplestuff catalog sells only products for the obese — or as the tagline says, “everything for big people (except clothes).” Products include footstools that can support 500 lbs., umbrellas that offer 25% additional coverage, and compact steering wheels to replace the standard models, leaving more room for the ample-size driver.

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