Handicap Market Develops Its Niche
John Lovelace saw the trend before it happened. About two years ago, one of his relatives was suffering from a disease that kept her wheelchair-bound. He saw the difficulties she had in heeding nature’s call. She could not use the facilities without the help of family and friends. Lovelace knew it wasn’t right.
Since then Lovelace has gone on a crusade to change the way people in Morgan County, Ala., think about handicap accessible bathrooms. “As older buildings are updated, our building department is requiring all existing buildings to be handicap accessible,” says Lovelace, owner of Lovelace Plumbing Co. Inc. in Decatur, Ala. “It’s becoming a real good market for us in commercial and retail buildings, and it’s growing as far as the residential market. We’re developing the market down here because there’s no place to go for people to see and try handicap accessible fixtures.”
Lovelace says he hears from people who cannot find anything about bathroom products for those with disabilities. “We receive phone calls from people who check on the Internet for handicap accessible products and cannot find anything,” he says. “The building department — and even our competitors — are sending people to us for these products. It’s become a real need.”
“The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) heightened awareness of handicap accessibility,” says Randy Grebel, the national sales manager for Bemis. “There’s a learning curve that accompanies a new law, and we’re seeing this law make its way through the marketplace.” Grebel says his company sells 10 percent more lift seats annually.
Grebel says items for plumbing contractors to install have expanded in the past few years, but he noted some of the change is being fueled by universal design.
Rising To The Need: Lovelace Plumbing is responding to the need by opening a showroom specializing in bathroom remodeling and handicap accessible products. The 2,400-sq.-ft. showroom is slated to be completed in October, and it will feature a wide variety of handicap accessible products. At that time Lovelace will change his marketing plan; he currently does no advertising or marketing for his shop. Business finds its way to him by word of mouth — and when it does, his customers are telling him his niche is desperately needed. And that’s understandable since millions of people in the United States have physical disabilities.
“I’m getting in touch with different manufacturers about material to put into the showroom,” Lovelace says. “A lot of the handicap material is very minimal. It’s not going to take a lot of space to show the difference and the different pieces of equipment. No one knows you can see these products in a showroom or a catalog. We’ll make it visible.”
His company has been visible for quite a while. Lovelace Plumbing, a Contractors 2000 member, is a third-generation company started in 1966. With $1.5 million in 1998 revenues (and $1.7 million targeted for 1999), it currently employs 22 workers and owns 10 service vehicles. The company focused on new construction for 26 years before moving into the service and remodeling arena for the past five years. He’s completed seven handicap accessible jobs in the past year.
Explaining The Options: Lovelace says his main task is to make the facility accessible. “We may install ceramic tile, grab bars, scald guards, personal units, handicap commodes, a vanity or a wall-hung lavatory,” explains Lovelace. “Sometimes people call us out to install grab bars in existing shower units, and we need to explain different options they never even thought about. Some people do not know these items are there, so they don’t ask for it. They see items in hospitals and nursing homes, but don’t think to ask for it or where to get it.”
The surrounding communities (Morgan, Madison and Limestone counties) are fairly stable with older people, Lovelace adds. “These people have been living in their homes for 30 or 40 years, and if they become disabled it is difficult to make the bathroom a usable, functional place. But each individual job is a little different.” He says the rest of the house is taken into consideration as well.
“We’ll go out into the hallway, depending on the individual circumstance, and make changes there as well.”
And that’s exactly what Lovelace and his team did for the “Christmas in April” program. They donated fixtures, ceramic tiles, grab bars, the shower unit and all the labor for five days for a 36-year-old paraplegic woman who was hit by a drunk driver. (To make matters worse, she’s on fixed income after her husband unexpectantly died, and she is raising a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.) “She had lived four years and had not been able to enter her bathroom by wheelchair,” says Lovelace. “She had 30-inch doors in both restrooms, and she could not get in there by herself.”
Lovelace Plumbing installed a 5-foot, three-piece handicap shower unit in there. The plumbing fixtures were relocated to allow for the 36-inch door. “Now she can wheel into the bathroom, shut the door, get into the shower, get access to her commode and be less dependent on her family.”
Palm Reading: Lovelace says in the future he would like to see a separate division in his company that specializes in bathroom remodeling, including handicap accessible product installation. “I’m a little nervous about stretching out a little too large because I’m not finding quality people and the expense of new vehicles,” he says. “I can see our service business growing to the $2 million range. I think we’ll reach the $1 million mark in remodeling in 2001.”
The company is only concentrating on bathrooms right now, says Lovelace. “It may come to the fact that we’re getting into the kitchen if it’s growing rapidly, too.” The start of another trend?