Your Hearing Store
“If you lose your sight, it’s a nuisance…if you lose your hearing, it’s a handicap.” — Helen Keller 1880-1968
As baby boomers continue to age, North America’s hearing impaired population is larger than ever. According to a Harbinger Research study, the number of Canadians who can be classified as “hard of hearing” sits at approximately 3.1 million people—10 per cent of the country’s population. The Canadian Hearing Society, however, says this number is grossly underestimated, as 23 per cent of the population self report having a hearing loss (7.1 million Canadians). Either way, the number is expected to increase substantially.
Interestingly, 90 percent of hearing problems can be helped with hearing devices, even though less than a quarter of those with hearing losses actually wear them. That means at least 2.3 million Canadians are missing out on a better quality of life. Market research attributes the lack of proper care to the high cost and inconvenience of acquiring hearing devices, as well as the potential embarrassment of wearing a highly visible hearing aid.
HearAtLast is a company that is all-too-familiar with these statistics. It is their mission to offer solutions to these issues, bringing a new approach to hearing assessments and hearing aid dispensing.
How it all started
Headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario, HearAtLast was founded almost five years ago by Matthew Sacco, Robert J. Oswald and Dr. Randy Lacey. Originally, their idea was to build pain and injury clinics that would use laser healing treatments. Dr. Lacey already had experience in building lab-oriented stores with real-time service—his optical model went on to establish LensCrafters in the 1980s—so the group felt they had a lot to work with.
Sacco was able to get an appointment with Wal-Mart Licensing to present their pain and injury clinic platform. As it turned out, Wal-Mart was not interested in injury treatment on a non-prescriptive basis, but the corporation did have an interest in the hearing aid market. As though it was meant to be, Oswald happened to have 18 years of experience in acoustics, clinic management, hearing aid dispensing and clinic design and build. So, when Wal-Mart Canada inquired if Sacco knew anyone that could develop an affordable hearing clinic model, he directed Wal-Mart to Oswald.
“Of course, I said yes,” Oswald says. “The next day, we met with the Director of Licensing, and we were fortunate enough to get chosen. I don’t know how it happened so fast, but it did, and now we have a unique hearing aid dispensing and testing platform to the benefit the Canadian public, all at affordable rates.” HearAtLast is similar to Wal-Mart pharmacies in that it has reduced dispensing fees, a regulated set of fees under AHIP in Ontario. In so doing, the clinic is able to bring the price of the hearing aid down about $300 to $500 per unit. This represents significant savings, especially when many customers are living on a fixed income and hearing aids can average around $1,000 per unit.
The first HearAtLast clinic was opened in London, Ontario on October 18, 2006. Since then, 28 more have opened in Canada—mostly in Ontario, with a handful out west. As Wal-Mart Canada expands, HearAtLast has plans to develop nearly 60 more clinics in the next two to three years. HearAtLast is also considering a brand-licensing model throughout Canada and the United States.
As for the future clinics’ whereabouts, it all depends on the community. “Wal-Mart looks at the demographics of a given region and, based on research, they can see if a hearing clinic is viable,” Oswald explains. “We are generally dealing with people who are over 65. It’s an empty-nester model that caters to our parents and grandparents—even though more people under the age of 65 are experiencing hearing loss in North America.
Something for everyone
It is the prevalence of hearing loss in younger generations that has spurred HearAtLast to be more than just a hearing aid clinic. Instead, the clinics are designed to be hearing healthcare providers, offering comprehensive hearing tests, as well as information and quality products that help protect and maintain one’s hearing.
“There are products for people of all ages to help with hearing, whether you’re severely impaired or not,” Oswald says. “For example, we are aggressively getting into the ear bud business. Consumers spend a lot of money on their Mp3 players, but they forget about proper ear buds—the missing link in the equation where hi-fi sound is concerned. The diameter of the traditional bud simply doesn’t fit anyone’s ear properly, so people tend to turn up the volume to compensate for deeper bass and sound quality. Depending on the volume and duration, it can really affect people’s hearing.”
“Over the next several months, we’re launching products that are designed to fit the ear properly,” he continues. “Our specialists will perform a proper otoscopic exam to look at the size of the canal, so you can have a unit that fits, letting you listen to your Mp3 player at a safe listening level to get the true sound effect. It’s a huge growth market, because most of us already have these devices.”
For those that do require hearing aids, HearAtLast offers a full-range of digital devices with control options. Technology being what it is, hearing aids are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, including the Q from Exsilent—the world’s smallest completely-in-the-canal (CIC) instrument. They are virtually invisible, which is perfect for those who are shy about their impairment.
“Wal-Mart continues to focus on its Health and Wellness program, incorporating walk-in medical clinics, opticals, pharmacies and hearing clinics,” Oswald explains. “It’s not always about money. We’re a partner, not a supplier. And the reason we’re in these stores is to give something back to the community. It’s about what Wal-Mart can provide to their massive flow of clientele to make their visits more pleasurable.”
For a clinic that aims to bring more attention to hearing in an affordable and accessible way, HearAtLast is succeeding. HearAtLast combines the popularity, convenience, and discount pricing of the superstore with brand-name devices offered by more traditional vendors everywhere.