Shopping is an art! Art by definition is a skill at doing a specific thing, typically one acquired through practice. The art of shopping is something we have been practicing, maybe even perfecting, most of our lives. Our parents teach us how to compare prices and how money doesn’t grow on trees. We learn through trial and error when it’s worth spending more money for a quality product and when you can hold back. As a society we’ve transitioned from physically shopping in stores to virtual shopping on-line relying on others’ reviews to guide us in our decisions. Where, how, and what we shop for changes as we mature and our financial situation changes, but also varies from purchase to purchase based on the importance we place on the item we are buying.
What is important or valuable varies from person to person. One person may spend a great deal of money to purchase their dream car but buy generic brands of food and eat the majority of their meals in; while another person might choose to buy a pre-owned car but splurge by eating at the finest restaurants. Ultimately, we decide where to spend our money and how much to spend based on how we prioritize or value each item. When we spend little, we don’t expect much in return but when we splurge, we expect the product to live up to our investment.
Is Shopping for Healthcare Different?
When it comes to healthcare, specifically hearing, the same type of spending philosophy applies. The value you place on hearing directly affects how much you’re willing to spend on hearing aids. Those who need to hear on the job or who enjoy conversation with family and friends will spare no expense. But that doesn’t mean they won’t shop around for the best price. This leads many unsuspecting people to Big Box Stores, where less advanced hearing aid technology is sold as “high-end”.
A previous client of mine (who I will refer to as Jane) was one of these unsuspecting consumers. Last time I saw Jane she was not ready to pursue hearing aids. So, when she called for an appointment I asked or attempted to ask repeatedly at increasingly louder levels what this appointment was for. She responded, “Isn’t it obvious I can’t hear and need help.” She made a good point, so I held off asking more questions as she was clearly struggling to hear me and getting frustrated. When I arrived at Jane’s house, I learned that she had taken her friend’s advice and bought less expensive hearing aids from a Big Box Store. Jane had returned to the store several times since and was still not hearing well. She was hoping I could program the hearing aids for her as she had heard so well with the hearing aids I previously loaned her. To Jane’s surprise I could not help.
The Big Box Store Challenge
Jane, like others who purchase hearing aids from Big Box Stores, are upset when they learn the reasons behind the lower prices. The Big Box Store does not sell the same hearing aids as other audiology practices. Instead they work with specific manufacturers to build hearing aids that fit their lower pricing model. These manufacturers will take their current hearing aids or older models and remove features until the hearing aids fit the Big Box Store’s pricing specifications. The hearing aid is then private labeled or renamed to that specific stores brand. This is similar to how IKEA will first decide on a price to sell a piece of furniture, then select the materials to fit that price. So even though you bought the Big Box Store’s “high-end” hearing aids they are not the same or equivalent to the high-end hearing aids at other audiology practices. Basically, you bought the compact car with a luxury car logo.
A common challenge that I see with consumers who buy from The Big Box Store is that they are unaware that the hearing aid was specially made to be sold at that chain and is “locked”. This means that the hearing aid can only be programmed at stores in that specific chain. This is great for the Big Box Store as it guarantees customer loyalty but for the consumer who moves, becomes home bound, or finds they want to switch audiologists they are left with two options. They either have to continue to return to the Big Box Store or purchase new hearing aids from another audiology practice.
The Big Box Store is not alone in the practice of private labeling and locking their hearing aids. Some larger audiology chains will also private label and lock their hearing aids. The difference is that even though they are putting their own private label on the hearing aids the instruments themselves are the same Phonak, Resound, and Oticon hearing aids being sold at other practices. So why would a practice choose to private label their hearing aids?
Taking Private Labels Public
The three big reasons are to promote a company’s own brand, to discourage customers from shopping around, and to guarantee customer loyalty. If a hearing aid is private labeled a consumer cannot compare it to what other audiologists offer as the name on the hearing aid is not representative of the technology inside it. Of course, most consumers do not realize that they bought a private labeled hearing aid or that it is locked until they attempt to switch their services to another audiology practice.
I received a call from someone who recently moved to Chicago and was looking for an audiologist to help with his current hearing aids. He felt his hearing had changed and was hoping to have his hearing aids adjusted. When I learned he had a set of private labeled hearing aids I called the manufacturer to see what could be done. Since these were private labeled but otherwise the same hearing aids I work with, they could be unlocked. However, the patient would have to pay a repair fee for the unlocking, and all his previous settings would be lost during the unlocking process. Which means we would be starting over from scratch rather than making a minor adjustment. More money and more time but at least he did not have to purchase new instruments.
Wrap it Up
So, the shopping guide to purchasing the right hearing aids is simple…ask questions. As the owner and audiologist of Boutique Hearing I routinely discuss the features of different manufacturers’ hearing aids as well as the differences in the service packages I offer. I make sure each of my clients is fully informed before making their decision. I will admit that I am fortunate to have a concierge practice where I have ample time with each client. This allows all my clients an opportunity to be informed and ask the right questions. Once they have, their decision should be easy. After all, they have been perfecting their shopping skills for their entire life.