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Mobility aids

Start date: 16 February 2011 (following a consultation on scope on 19 November 2010)
End date: 29 September 2011

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Purpose of this study

Mobility aids can play a vital role in supporting the ways in which millions of elderly and disabled people live their lives by enabling them to live more independently, safely and healthily. For example, they can assist elderly and disabled people in carrying out daily living activities, accessing their place of employment and a wider range of social and leisure activities. Mobility aids can also enable some users to continue living in their own homes rather than having to move into residential care. In addition, mobility aids can reduce the risk of accidents or injuries related to restricted mobility. For many consumers, these products can be a necessity.

In early 2010, key interested parties raised concerns with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that the mobility aids sector may not be working well for consumers. We consulted publicly and received comments from a wide range of key interested parties on the proposed scope of a market study into the UK sector for mobility aids. As a result of that consultation, we focused the market study on the following three areas of potential concern in order to examine whether the sector is working well for consumers:

  • whether consumers are treated fairly
  • whether consumers can access, assess and act on information which enables them to make informed purchasing decisions and to drive vigorous competition amongst firms, and
  • whether competition in the supply of wheelchairs in the UK is working well for consumers.

Our market study covers the following mobility aids: wheelchairs, scooters, stair lifts, bath aids, hoists, adjustable beds and specialist seating.

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Key findings

1. Are consumers being treated fairly by traders?

We have found unfair sales practices targeted at elderly and vulnerable consumers which are particularly prevalent in doorstep sales. Users of mobility aids may be more likely to be vulnerable when making purchasing decisions, for example due to their limited mobility and age-related conditions. More than 4,000 complaints in respect of mobility aids sales have been made to Consumer Direct in each of the last three years. In addition, we have found that complaints about unfair sales practices in this sector are highest for doorstep sales.

We have found that a small minority of firms engage in unfair sales practices, such as high pressure and misleading sales practices. Although these practices are not endemic in this sector, the harm to consumers is potentially high where they occur. In addition, it appears that such experiences are often under-reported by consumers.

2. Can consumers in this sector access, assess and act on information which enables them to make informed purchasing decisions?

Although consumers are in the main satisfied with their purchasing experience, many do not shop around (for example by searching for alternative offers using the internet, telephone or by visiting other retailers), and a significant proportion of consumers base their purchasing decisions on limited information.

As a result, and because prices vary significantly, consumers can end up paying very high prices and risk purchasing products that may be inappropriate to their needs. For example, the price for the identical mobility scooter can vary by over £1,000, and we have even seen price differences of £3,000. Poor mobility, lack of access to the internet by some consumers and being under time pressure to make a purchase (for example, where an urgent need arises) also, in part, account for lower levels of shopping around.

In addition, there is a lack of price advertising on the internet and in marketing materials which inhibits consumers' ability to shop around in order to identify products that represent good value for money.

3. Is competition in the wheelchair sector working well for consumers?

We have found that the provision of wheelchairs in the UK is highly concentrated with one supplier currently accounting for a majority of sales to the public sector. However, despite this concentration, the sector is subject to some competitive constraints.

However, certain aspects of the fragmented purchasing structure and patterns of public sector purchasing may be deterring significant scale entry and expansion. They may also present difficulties for public sector purchasing bodies in exercising their potential buyer power. For example, improved whole-life costing across public sector purchasing bodies could provide increased incentives for firms to compete on prices. The OFT considers that these factors may be affecting the ability of purchasing bodies to achieve fully buyer power efficiencies in order to drive further competition and good outcomes for consumers.

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Actions and recommendations

1. Are consumers being treated fairly by traders?

The OFT and TSS are currently taking action against firms in this sector. The OFT commenced investigations into two national firms, one suspected of engaging in unfair sales practices on the doorstep, and another in respect of its terms and conditions and service quality issues, and it is investigating other similar behaviour. Further to our early intervention, one of these cases has led to the introduction of new, fairer, terms and conditions, and outstanding issues regarding improved sales and after-sales care are in the process of being resolved. The second investigation is continuing. The OFT has also started action which could lead to the removal of the credit licences from a number of traders.

The OFT has launched a doorstep selling consumer awareness campaign, with specific emphasis on mobility aids to empower consumers against unfair sales practices. The campaign provides consumers with practical tips and informs them of their rights.

The OFT will hold an enforcement summit later this year and subsequently produce enforcement Guidance for TSS in March 2012, bringing together best practice and experience to support TSS' work in this sector.

We are warning traders to ensure that their practices are compliant with the law or face possible legal action by the OFT or TSS. The OFT will continue to prioritise complaints in this sector in respect of national firms, particularly complaints concerning high pressure and misleading sales practices. We will also be coordinating enforcement activity with TSS. In addition, we recommend to TSS that complaints in this sector should be prioritised as far as possible within their existing portfolio of work.

2. Can consumers in this sector access, assess and act on information which enables them to make informed purchasing decisions?

We recommend that suppliers should disclose actual prices or price ranges (where an exact quote cannot be given) on websites and in marketing material. We are working together with the British Healthcare Trades Association, whose Code of Practice the OFT sponsors, and it has agreed to amend its Code of Practice in order to require its members to display actual prices and price ranges.

We urge consumers to seek out better value by shopping around, for example by obtaining more than one quote before making a purchase as prices for the same product can vary significantly.

We make a range of recommendations, including to local authorities, designed to increase consumers' ability to make good purchasing decisions.

3. Is competition in the wheelchair sector working well for consumers?

We make recommendations to NHS Supply Chain and to the community of individual public sector purchasing bodies across the UK, with a view to increasing their ability to drive vigorous competition in the wheelchair sector.

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How to respond

Provisional decision not to make a market investigation reference to the Competition Commission

A possible outcome from a market study is a market investigation reference to the Competition Commission. Although we have not reached a provisional view based on the findings in our report as to whether the statutory test for reference is met, our view is that this is not a case in which we would exercise our discretion to make such a reference. Interested parties are invited to submit their views on our proposed decision by 4pm on Thursday 20 October 2011, either by email to mobilityaids@oft.gsi.gov.uk or in writing to:

Mobility Aids Market Study Team
Goods and Consumer Group
The Office of Fair Trading
Fleetbank House
2-6 Salisbury Square
London
EC4Y 8JX

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Related documents

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Advice to consumers buying on the doorstep

The OFT has launched a doorstep selling consumer awareness campaign, with specific emphasis on mobility aids to empower consumers against unfair sales practices. We are running this campaign in partnership with consumer groups, including TSS, and charities in this sector. The campaign provides consumers with practical tips and informs them of their rights including the following:

  • Think twice before you buy and if you are made to feel under pressure to make a purchase, have the confidence to say no.
  • Be wary of time-limited or exclusive offers that need to be signed on the spot - this can be a high pressure sales tactic.
  • Double check the facts. Do you fully understand the costs and know whether it includes extras like installation, on-going serving charges or warranties?
  • Always shop around to compare products and prices.
  • Talk to someone you trust for a second opinion. 
  • If you spend more than £35 with a trader on the doorstep, you usually have seven days in which to cancel (subject to certain conditions). If in doubt, call the Citizens Advice consumer service on 08454 040506 or visit www.adviceguide.org.uk.

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Team leader

Maria Rican (020 7211 5895, maria.rican@oft.gsi.gov.uk)

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Project director

Louis Christofides (020 7211 8935, louis.christofides@oft.gsi.gov.uk)

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Senior responsible officer

Ann Pope (020 7211 8786, ann.pope@oft.gsi.gov.uk)

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Media enquiries

Any media enquiries should be directed to a member of our Press Office.




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