November 6, 2013
Last spring, as he has since the late 1980s, Larry Woerner drove to the Cincinnati Reds’ training camp, now held in Goodyear, Ariz., hoping to see a team that would make it all the way to the World Series.
Although the Reds let down the longtime Upper Arlington resident, the trip set Woerner on a path toward enterprise: a hearing-aid franchise.
Woerner will open the first Zounds Hearing retail store in central Ohio at 784 Bethel Rd. in early December.
The roundabout way in which Woerner and his family came to be franchise owners is a yarn fit for the hot-stove league, said Wayne Warner, Zounds regional manager.
Woerner, 80, a retired food broker for supermarket merchandise, has been a Reds fan since childhood.
“Back then, it was the only game in town,” he said. “I started going to spring training starting with the last time they were in Tampa, 1987. I’ve only missed three spring-training camps since then.”
Before heading to the Phoenix area this year, Woerner realized that the hearing aid he had been wearing for the past four or five years was at the end of its expected life.
“So I talked to my hearing-aid vendor here, and he said new ones would be about $6,400, something like that,” Woerner said.
The price gave him pause, so he went online to look into alternatives.
Woerner was hardly alone in his quest for something cheaper. Because the price of hearing aids is notoriously high — often as much as $6,000 — 75 percent of the 27 million Americans who should use a hearing device choose not to buy one, according to industry statistics.
To answer that need, a number of companies have entered the market, providing much-less-expensive products and attracting big sales.
Costco, for example, has put hearing-aid centers in most of its stores and has reported sales growth of more than 20 percent a year over the past four years. Several web-based services that mail hearing aids to customers also have entered the fray.
Looking over the options, Woerner found Zounds, a hearing-aid company founded by Sam Thomasson, an engineer based in Mesa, Ariz. Thomasson spent seven years designing a better, cheaper instrument to help his hearing-impaired daughter, then opened the first Zounds store in 2007 in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix.
Top-level Zounds hearing aids cost no more than $3,000 per pair, a company spokesman said.
“I thought, what the heck, I might check it out,” Woerner said. “All the (spring-training) games started at 1:05 (p.m.), and I was looking for something to do in the morning, so I set up a time."
Woerner stopped by the Zounds facility with his son. After the staff tested Woerner, he and his son went to a coffee-break room while they waited for his hearing aid to be programmed.
“There was another guy there, an employee, and he said, ‘You know, they’re opening franchises all over,’ ” Woerner said.
Woerner shrugged off the comment, at least initially, and after picking up his new hearing aid, he went to the ball game. But that night, he and his son were in a Phoenix restaurant where a child was making noise nearby. “My son said, ‘Is that kid bothering you?’ ” Woerner said. “I said, ‘I can hear him, but it’s no problem.’ ”
Both men found the moment unusual because Woerner had been on a cruise a month earlier and had been bothered by background noise.
During the three-day drive back to Ohio, they looked at franchise material.
They found that, although the hearing-aid business might not be sexy, it’s big and growing. Because the U.S. population is aging, more than 2.8 million hearing aids were dispensed nationally last year, an increase of 2.9 percent over the year before, according to statistics released by the Hearing Industries Association.
The $2 billion business is expected to grow by 3.2 percent this year, more than in any other year since the recession, as many states begin to expand their Medicaid coverage in preparation for full implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Woerner visited Zounds locations in Indianapolis and Cincinnati and said sales there were brisk.
“They’re doing very, very well,” he said.
That visit — and Woerner’s experience — clinched the decision.
“I’ve had one of their hearing aids now for seven months, and they really are better than any I’v e had, and really are half the price,” Woerner said. “So we’re hoping for the best.”
So hopeful are Woerner, his son and his daughter that they already have plans to open a second Zounds retail store on the Northeast Side in 2014. He would not reveal the franchise cost, but he said he and his children have exclusive rights to the Columbus market.
But not every part of the story is happy, Woerner said.
“I’m still disappointed the way the Reds ended the season,” he said. “They had some injuries. I wish we could get Johnny Cueto to come up and help open the store, but I don’t think we can.”