Published 2/03, Copyright 2003,

Caveat Emptor:
Avoiding knock-off mobility products
Mark E. Smith

If you've ever roamed the tourist district in a big city, you've probably run across Rolux watches, Samsonrite luggage, and Niki shoes - all under $20!  As you may have quickly found out by closely inspecting the items, not only was there a variation from the name-brand counterpart, but also in quality, accounting for the astonishingly low cash-and-carry prices.

Indeed, "knock-off" products are nothing new.  For decades, countries like China, Taiwan, and Korea have housed low-key manufacturers who take name-brand products, and copy them, selling them through less regulated channels like street vendors.  Unfortunately, in the knock-off process, cost is of greatest concern, so quality and integrity are usually lost in the translation. The results are products that look like the original brand, but lack the durability, function, and performance.

Due to the increasing world-wide demand for mobility products, an entire subculture of  knock-off wheelchairs and scooter products have emerged, gaining increasing consumer exposure via the Internet, enticing unknowing online shoppers with super-low prices on familiar-looking products.  But, to spin a cliché, what you see isn't what you get, and what you don't know may hurt you in this unregulated realm.

Surf Ebay or visit sites that boast discount wheelchairs, and you'll quickly find knock-off mobility products featuring descriptions of, "Just like the Quickie" or "Same as the Invacare Tracer," advertised at up to one-third the retail price of the compared brand-name product.  The fundamental flaw with these pitches is that they truly aren't comparable products, lacking the testing and structural integrity of the name brands.

Many countries regulate mobility products, striving to ensure that construction methods are sound and that operation is safe.  In the United States, the FDA is the regulating body, and in many European countries, TUV is the regulating body, both holding manufacturers and products to functional standards.  Such regulatory standards certainly can't 100% protect consumers - no regulation can on any product - however, they make a meaningful difference toward ensuring high levels of quality and performance that may not otherwise be maintained by all within the industry.

As one might presume, knock-off mobility products come out of unregulated manufacturing houses, are not submitted to regulatory rigors, and are sold by unregulated dealers.  Within this do-as-they-wishes segment, prudent construction methods are most often curbed solely to cut costs, making truly inferior products.  Take manufacturing controls and reliable construction methods out of any product, and money is saved - but, at the expense of the end user.

As an example, a friend of mine manufactures high-end lightweight manual chairs on the International level, of which I had the pleasure of working with to build one for myself.  His products meet the highest engineering, construction, and regulatory standards, using materials like titanium and precision machining, resulting in chairs that hover around the $3,000 price range.  Recently, while cruising the Web, I stumbled upon an online dealer in Canada retailing my friend's chair for $375.  Within seconds of viewing the photo, however, it was clear that the chair on the screen wasn't manufactured to the same standards as the one parked under my rear - that is, the one on the screen was a clear knock-off.  What was most disconcerting was that while the chair at first glance appeared identical in form, it lacked vital aspects like frame gussets, structurally sound caster barrels, and adjustable brakes - items that are fundamental to durability, safety, and performance (the steel, hospital-type  spoke wheels instead of aluminum Sun rims where a sad touch, as well).  As my friend later said, he designed features like the frame gussets and reinforced caster barrels into the product for good reasons, and to remove such vital design aspects, and sell it to consumers is irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst.  

Unfortunately, many consumers view a wheelchair as "a wheelchair," paying little attention to design details, which is how these backdoor manufacturers and dealers survive.  After all, how differently constructed could two lightweight wheelchairs be that look the same?  

The answer is, very differently, and the consequences can be profound.  If a Rolux watch stops working, you're out the $20 bucks you paid for it.  If your Fastie manual chair loses a caster barrel, you're out $375, plus your mobility - and, possibly injured.  From footrest hangers bending on first use, to sharp edges on armrests, to brakes that don't hold, to improperly fused electronics, a knock-off mobility products can offer a plate full of hazards. And, when these products fail, you are left to fend for yourself, with no warranty or customer service.  Removing a brand name is harmless; however, removing the quality and integrity of a products has consequences, which is where knock-off mobility products land.

Now, some might argue that for a price savings, they are willing to accept the risks of buying a knock-off product.  However, with major manufacturers utilizing more cost-effective manufacturing in Asia, as well, prices of fully regulated, name-brand mobility products have become lower, especially in the light-rehab sectors of manual chairs and scooters.  When considering products like K0004 manual chairs (for example, an Invacare 9000 or a Quickie Breezy), the real article can be purchased on the discount market at a price darn close to a knock-off version - and the name brand chair is fully tested and guaranteed by the manufacturer.

Unfortunately, even the mobility market has its dark sides, with people in the shadows more interested in making a dollar than making an honest product.  As a prudent consumer, understand the products you're assessing, research the manufacturer and dealer, and remember your Latin, caveat emptor - or, at least the English version, let the buyer beware.

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