Sunday, November 18, 2007

A shopping expedition that brightened my day

Each stage of one’s life provides opportunities to learn about new technologies and to interact with the entrepreneurs that provide them. Yesterday, in preparation for my father’s Thanksgiving visit, I began learning about technologies that could help him to be more mobile, independent and safe in a house that has some obstacles for those with uncertain balance and limited mobility.

I have written about my father, from time to time in previous blogs. Soon he will celebrate his 97th birthday. Between the age of 90 and 95, he cruised through the Panama Canal and the straits of Magellan. He traveled through the Suez Canal and climbed into the tombs under the great pyramids - with steep steps that make this a feat for someone much younger. He toured the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, this time mostly by wheelchair, and climbed to the upper balcony of the opera house. He made a sentimental journey, which he believed would be his last, to old haunts in Lisbon and the rural north of Portugal.

But aging is working its inexorable ravages and, like many other families, we are working with an elderly parent to cope with this reality, while sustaining some quality of life. Yesterday, I began the process of buying and installing some “safety” equipment that would make my home an easier place for my father to visit.

I began with a Google search. It immediately became clear that this is a niche market. A search on various likely descriptors produced far fewer hits than for my book, Paradise Poisoned, or for this blog. The hits that appeared were mostly for classified listings, not individual websites. The first two calls I made reached disconnected numbers. The third produced success, but to a concern, Zask International Medical Supply that had replaced another, which had gone out of business. Zask had purchased their phone number as part of its marketing strategy, I learned. I remembered an NPR piece on Medicare fraud in Florida, which spoke of shell companies set up to bill US taxpayers millions for equipment that was never delivered.

Zask Medical Supplies seemed entirely legitimate. When I called, a cheerful human voice, not a menu or robotic outsourcee from an offshore call center responded. The young woman provided helpful information and directions. She explained that their establishment was located in an office park, not a store front. Assisted by Google Maps, I found the location, amidst suites of doctors, dentists and local attorneys’ offices, without difficulty.

The sign on the door was so unprepossessing that I might have missed it, were it not for the row of wheelchairs in front, under an overhanging balcony. This was not a business, clearly, that was seeking walk-in traffic. But it did seem to be a business where the employees enjoyed their work and engaging with their customers in a non routenized manner. The young woman who helped me remembered our telephone conversation. Her explanations of different options to a neophyte purchaser were cheerful, patient and helpful. The ambience of the somewhat cluttered facility had a “community” feeling. The only other client was a couple that was purchasing a walker and wheelchair, also anticipating a Thanksgiving visit - from the 87 year-old mother of one of them. We exchanged ideas and experiences. The employees joined in the conversation.

Apparently, the retail market for mobility assistance and safety equipment is not sufficiently large that it has fallen prey to the dehumanizing structures of American consumerism: mass marketing, cut prices and sullen dehumanized employees reluctantly delivering indifferent service at best. Yesterday I was glad of that. This two hour shopping expedition to purchase safety equipment for my home could have been a “downer.” Instead, it brightened my day.


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