Move over Nordstrom’s: Here’s retail shops for patients

Retail shops provide revenue for education programs

Did you believe that the part-time job you worked in the local department store during your college days gave you valuable experience for your health care career? Neither did the people who are constructing and managing the newest source of revenue for women’s centers throughout the country.

Women’s health care boutiques offering specialized products for new mothers, breast cancer patients, and other female patients are appearing as women’s centers search for funds to support educational and outreach programs not covered by managed care.

One of the first retail shops to appear was in the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. "We started with breast pump rentals and breastfeeding-related items such as footstools in 1990," says Nancy Held, RN, IBCLC, manager of the perinatal education and lactation center. In 1994, a merger with another institution created a mandate eliminating departments unable to cover their costs, she explains. Because managed care usually doesn’t pay for breastfeeding education on an outpatient basis, it was necessary that Held find another source of revenue for her department.

Fear of no longer having a job was the motivation to expand their range of products and become more retail-oriented to generate more revenue, adds Held.

First, there was some resistance to the idea of nurses selling, says Held. "We have always educated patients about the products they will need. We would offer advice on how to buy a nursing bra or other products, but we never closed the loop. Our patients are going to buy these products anyway, so why not offer our expertise as an extra service and have them buy from us?"

The move into retail paid off for Held’s department. In its first year, the retail shop not only covered the costs of the education department, but generated a small profit as well. Since then, revenue has continued to grow and Held has been able to increase education staff and shop staff.

Quality and expertise essential

Control over the quality and appropriateness for patients was one of the reasons Beth Allen, RNC, IBCLC, manager of the perinatal lactation center at Northside Hospital in Atlanta enthusiastically lobbied for the establishment of A Woman’s Place, the hospital’s health care boutique.

Traditionally, nurse educators provided lists of shops that offered nursing bras, wigs to chemotherapy patients, and other items. However, there was no way to know how well-trained the salespeople would be in fitting bras, or if the shop carried a wide variety of quality merchandise, explains Allen.

Whenever a patient comes to A Woman’s Place, she can be sure that the person helping her really does understand what she needs, says Allen. "Lactation consultants are available to help breastfeeding mothers choose appropriate items, and breast cancer survivors help breast cancer patients choose wigs, prostheses, or other items."

The lactation consultants are also employees of the hospital’s perinatal lactation center, and breast cancer survivors are employees of A Woman’s Place. The women who help breast cancer patients receive special training from prostheses and compression hose manufacturers on how to properly fit these items, she adds. This special training, along with the personal experience they bring, make a breast cancer patient’s purchasing experience more pleasant, Allen says.

At Sharp-Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Children in San Diego, staff members attend a four-hour course offered by Medela of McHenry, IL, to become certified bra fitters. "This is one way we can assure the best service for our customers and make us stand out from other shops in the community," says Susan K. Toth, RNC, BSN, CLE, manager of women’s education for Sharp Healthcare.

Choose stock with care

Deciding which service lines to support and which items to carry is a key component in starting your shop on the right path to success, agree the experts.

"We started the process with a market analysis that looked at demographics within our service area, then we looked at hospital statistics on the different service lines that provide care to women. Urology, obstetrics, and cancer were identified as departments that serve a large number of women who need items during or after treatments," says Allen.

The best sources of information for include the hospital’s planning department and manufacturers such as Medela that offer products Allen was planning to carry. Another source that Allen found helpful was the Washington, DC-based Health Care Advisory Board, a best practices research firm. (See contact information, below.)

Most women’s centers found starting with breastfeeding and maternity-related supplies were easy. "We focus on breastfeeding and offer rental and purchase of pumps, bras, and clothing," says Toth. The San Diego shop carries nightwear, casual, and business wear appropriate for maternity and breastfeeding.

It is important to attend apparel or product shows to make sure your shop is carrying the most up-to-date items, says Toth.

There are apparel and product marts throughout the country: women’s center shop representatives have to complete an application at the mart to be identified as a buyer. "Once this is done, you [will] receive notices about every show that includes vendors who offer products that you are interested in," explains Allen.

Held’s shop has added items over the years, but is still focused on maternity and postpartum customers. "We sell 330 nursing bras each month compared to the typical retail store, which sells 60. We listen when our customers ask for other items such as baby nail scissors, thermometers, and sitz bath herbs," says Held. "Adding these products just increases the convenience to our customers who are usually overwhelmed by the newness of being a parent."

Other items usually in stock for new parents include baby carriers, footstools to use during breastfeeding, educational or inspirational books and tapes, and aromatherapy products to help everyone relax.

In addition to the maternity and postpartum products, Allen’s shop carries items for women who are undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Wigs, lymphedema sleeves, radiation garments, mastectomy bras and lingerie, swimwear and swim forms, turbans, scarves, and hats are some of the products women want but can’t always find easily, says Allen.

"We found that women undergoing breast cancer treatment were going from store to store to find what they needed. They had to repeat their stories to each salesperson, sometimes to males, and the whole process was difficult during an already difficult time," explains Allen. "Now we can be a one-stop shop; they are helped by salespeople who understand their needs, because they themselves have had breast cancer and mastectomies."

Allen says that A Woman’s Place focuses on maternity and breast cancer because these are the two dominant women-focused services at her hospital. "To be successful from the start, a women’s center shop should focus on supporting the strongest one or two services, then ex-pand from there."

A Woman’s Place is geared toward respecting women’s privacy and helping them transition through their illness, says Allen.

"We know from our own experiences as women that birth or cancer treatment leaves you overwhelmed. We try to make it easy for women to use our services."

For this reason, Allen’s shop keeps a card file on all customers so they will have a record of which bra fits the best or which product worked well the last time the customer bought it. "If a new mother needs another bra, and she bought her first one from us, she doesn’t even have to come [back]. We just take the credit card information and ship it to her," says Allen.

Unlike most women’s center shops, Allen’s staff will file insurance for reimbursable items, such as prostheses for mastectomy patients.

"We are cash, check, or charge only; we don’t have any problems with it," says Held. "Because we look like any other retail outlet with our store design and our displays, our customers don’t expect us to act like a hospital department that files insurance."

Superbills are given to patients if they want to file for reimbursement on their own.

Location is not a key

While most retail store operators insist that location is the key to success, women’s center shops have found that location is not as important as having enough space for displays and storage. Held’s store has always been located in a relatively obscure location with poor signage leading the way, but she sees an average of 100 customers a day. She helps generate the traffic by holding educational classes in a room adjacent to the store, keeping a baby scale in the store so new mothers can weigh their infants, and a changing table.

In addition to promoting the store to women attending classes, Allen and Toth say that word-of-mouth is the best advertising tool. Other than a few public relations activities and communication with physicians, none of these experts spend money to advertise their successful shops. (See marketing ideas, p. 151.)

Along with a list of tips to ensure success for retail shops, all of the experts interviewed by Women’s Health Center Management recommend site visits before setting up your own. (See advice for shops, p. 152)

"Each store will differ from women’s center to women’s center, but it really helps to see how others have overcome space or display limitations," advises Allen. "It also helps to talk to people who have gone through the process and can point out the pitfalls you may encounter."

Want to Know More?

For more information on women’s center retail shops, contact:

Beth Allen, Manager, Perinatal Lactation Center and A Woman’s Place, Northside Hospital, 1000 Johnson Ferry Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30342-1611. Telephone: (404) 303-3966.

Susan K. Toth, Manager of Women’s Education, Sharp Healthcare, 3003 Health Center Drive, San Diego, CA 92123. Telephone: (619) 541-4148.

For more information about the services and fees of the Health Care Advisory Board, call or write:

The Advisory Board Company, 600 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037. Telephone: (202) 672-5600.