Sunday, June 10, 2001

Store serves special needs


Clothing and accessories boost confidence of owners, customers

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        Amy Hirschman and Suzanne Martin started their business as a logical outgrowth of their careers as social workers. The women own Independent You, a shop that provides clothing, accessories and gifts for men and women who have physical limitations but want to remain as independent as possible.

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Amy Hirschman and Suzanne Martin sell a device that fans a card hand and a tool that can pick up various things.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        “As social workers with more than 25 combined years of experience, we understand the frustrations faced by those who have difficulty fastening the buttons of a shirt or pulling a top over the head,” Ms. Hirschman said.

        The idea of opening their own shop came from their observations at the nursing home where they worked. Many residents depended on the social workers to shop for them. When it came to finding appropriate, manageable and affordable clothing, the choices were few.

        “So, we opened our store to offer the adaptive garments that we could never find,” Ms. Hirschman said.

        “We started out with the real matronly look, but began adding newer fashions as well,” Ms. Martin said. “We carry housedresses; McAlpin's used to, but Dillard's doesn't. We have a lot of garments with elastic waists, with Velcro closures and with dolman sleeves, which accommodate stiff joints. And 98 percent of what we carry is wash-and-wear.”

WHAT'S FOR SALE
  Independent You stocks classic, comfortable clothing for women and men. There's adaptive clothing as well: garments that accommodate casts; zippers with pulls to make it easier for people with arthritis, oversized socks for swollen feet, seamless socks for tender toes, comfort shoes that stretch and support.
;   Examples of “life enhancers” include a non-skid dish, a plastic food bumper that fits standard-size plates, a holder for playing cards, and a pill box timer.
WHERE TO BUY
  Customers can shop online at www.independentyou.com or order a catalog and shop by telephone or fax. The store is at 434 Springfield Pike in Wyoming. Telephone is 761-1866 or (877) INDEYOU.
        You won't see medical equipment in the Wyoming store. Independent You does not stock items for which Medicare provides reimbursement. The owners leave that to medical supply companies and pharmacies.

        “We don't get into that,” Ms. Martin said. “But we get referrals from medical supply places and drugstores for things they don't carry.”

        Many of the shop's nonclothing items are referred to as “life enhancers.” They include simple tools such as foam grippers, gripping sticks and easy-squeeze scissors.

        There are also jewelry items, made easier to fasten by magnetic clasps. There are high-fashion canes, folding canes and canes with adjustable height.

        Whether it's fashionable or just functional, every item stocked by Independent You was chosen for a purpose.

        “We want to keep you as independent as possible, with things that give a little more dignity and help you look attractive,” Ms. Martin said.

        Before they opened their shop in 1996, both women knew it could fill a need. They knew what they wanted to stock, and they were comfortable dealing with clientele who were aging or handicapped. But each has had to learn to think like a businesswoman, which can be very different from the perspective of a helping professional.

        “We're still helpful and kind, but we had to pick up the pace a little bit,” Ms. Hirschman said. “When we're doing social work, it's intangible and hard to measure. In the business world, everything's much more concrete. Something either sells or it doesn't. Time is money. I've had to really look at how I use my time.”

        Added Ms. Martin: “We took a couple of adult-education classes in business, because we knew we knew nothing. We went to SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and talked to their counselors. Now we have a retired businessman who comes in and keeps us on track. He checks our books and knows all the equations. We call him our consultant.”

        The shop has increased its sales by about 20 percent a year since it opened.

        Both women credit their business venture with increasing their organizational skills and their confidence. They've learned the importance of follow-through and promptness. They pride themselves on the service and one-on-one understanding they give their customers in the shop and on the Web.

        But being in business is demanding, and getting their message out to potential customers is difficult, the shop owners say.

        Ms. Martin said: “It's a lot tougher than you expect it to be. You can be unique, but if nobody knows you're there, it doesn't matter.”

        The two have promoted their business and tried to educate the public through programs and fashion shows at nursing homes and retirement communities. Those efforts, although well-received, don't always translate into new customers.

        So they've learned to revise the strategy.

        “We think the market is caregivers and families,” Ms. Martin said, adding that she and Ms. Hirschman are looking for ways to increase the shop's visibility among adults who have special-needs children or parents with physical limitations.

        They also maintain their social work licenses and periodically furnish their services to health-care institutions on a contract basis. Ms. Hirschman is now working at Masonic Eastern Star Community in College Hill, helping in the shop in the evening and on weekends.

        “It's a way to supplement the shop's income. It also keeps us in the health-care industry and gives us another opportunity to network,” she said.
       



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