What’s the Typical HME Retail Experience? Ask a Secret Shopper

Posted on in Growth Strategies, Service Solutions

By Dorothy de Souza Guedes

Imagining what it’s like to be a first-time shopper in a home medical equipment showroom can help you deliver a better retail experience for all of your customers.

Maria is stressed and worried: Her beloved aunt Alice has fallen and broken her hip. Maria flies in from 1,000 miles away to prepare for her aunt’s return home. However, before the doctor releases her from rehab, aunt Alice needs a lift chair.

Casually dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Maria walks into the closest HME to aunt Alice’s home. She wanders around the retail showroom for a few minutes before Jenny, who is standing behind a desk, asks her what she needs. Maria walks up to the counter and says that her aunt needs “one of those chairs that lifts her up.”

Jenny asks Maria if she has a prescription for the chair from her aunt’s doctor, then asks about insurance coverage. As Maria digs the paperwork out of her purse, she tells Jenny, “I’m concerned about aunt Alice and just want her to be safe in her house. I don’t know what insurance she has, but it doesn’t matter—I’m going to buy the chair or whatever she needs.”

Jenny signals to a coworker, who walks over and introduces himself as Todd. For the next 30 minutes, Todd shows Maria a few lift chairs, having her sit on them and work the lift mechanism. Todd never asks Maria anything about her aunt—Maria is 5’ 2” and 105 pounds while her aunt 5’8” and 225—or her aunt’s home, which has a formal living room, casual den, a large gourmet kitchen, and three bathrooms on two levels.

Eventually, Todd talks Maria out of buying the most expensive chair on the showroom floor, which Maria likes because of the style and fabric. Instead, he steers Maria toward a less-expensive model. After purchasing the recommended mid-level lift chair, Maria walks out of the showroom still concerned about aunt Alice’s ability to safely live alone.

Secret Shopper

Maria is Maria Markusen, director of operations and development for VGM Retail Services. Over the course of about 15 years, she has made hundreds of secret shopper visits to HME retail stores, hospitals, and senior care facilities.

These days, when Maria walks into an HME as a secret shopper, it is usually part of her business analysis for a new retail client. She uses this visit to understand the client’s current retail strategy and to identify areas of strength and potential weaknesses. Maria will also secret shop the competition and do market research before meeting with the client to talk about concerns and customer pain points.

It’s Retail, Not Just HME

The modern consumer has high expectations, and one retail store is usually not the only player in town, Maria said. But, that may not be true of home medical equipment, which is more challenging to shop, particularly online, unless it's a repeat product.

People who go to an HME retail store are often ill or recovering from an injury.

“If they don't have a good experience,” said Maria, “it's like another knife in their back. They're already sick, or their loved one is sick. If they don't have a good experience, it just exacerbates that.”


About 70 percent of the time when she walks into an HME as a customer, she is not greeted by anyone, Maria said. On the rare occasions she is greeted, it’s often by someone behind a very clinical-like desk.

"I feel like I’m in a doctor's office," Maria said.

When she is not greeted, Maria walks around the store for up to 10 minutes before walking out. "That's actually a long time to be walking around a store," Maria said.


On occasions when she is greeted, the salesperson often neglects to build rapport with her, instead focusing on insurance coverage and getting her exactly what’s asked for and nothing more, Maria said. The salesperson is not personable or consultative.

This lack of rapport building is what's usually missing during Maria’s secret shopper stops. If a customer is going to buy something that is going to affect their health, they want to have confidence that they can trust the salesperson, Maria said. 

”In our industry, we tend to become the authority,” said Maria. “A good salesperson will step back and act like they don't have all of the answers.” 

Sales Done Right

A good salesperson should build trust by asking open-ended questions to learn more about the person’s health, home, and lifestyle.

On one recent secret shop, the salesperson greeted Maria right away. She asked Maria about her aunt’s typical day and what she likes to do with her free time.

When she learned that the aunt entertained friends in her formal living room but relaxed alone in her more casual den, the salesperson suggested that Maria should purchase a high-end lift chair to use when she has company and a second, less-expensive chair for the den. At one point, she told Maria, “I get that this is more expensive, but I want to make sure your aunt is safe, and you walk away comfortable knowing she is safe.”

"That was a really successful secret shop,” Maria said. “She was also empathetic with me. She was going to sell me several thousands of dollars worth of product, but I didn’t feel like she was fleecing me.”

What You Need To Know

You can learn more during “Achieving Retail Success,” a daylong, Heartland Conference 2017 pre-conference session on Monday, June 12. Presenters will be Maria, Rob Baumhover, and Staci Langel. Register here.

To learn more about VGM Retail Services, including The Six Fundamentals of Retail Science, Shop-in-A-Box, and Caretailing Training Program, call 855-285-3300 or email [email protected].