D_Strom.jpg (7896 bytes)Statistics from the Hearing Industries Assn. (HIA) continue to indicate slow hearing instrument sales growth in 2000. Compared to the first half of 1999, U.S. net unit hearing aid sales increased by only 3.6%. While this means that sales are slightly up, for the moment it looks like the average hearing care professional will dispense only 2.5 more hearing aids (roughly one binaural fitting) in 2000 than he/she did in 1999. With a 20.4% market penetration rate and an estimated 28-million people who have hearing impairment, one keeps hoping the numbers will begin to show some upward change.

What has changed remarkably is the increase in DSP and programmable instruments dispensed. In total, programmable and DSP instruments now account for nearly half (48.4%) of the hearing instrument market—an astonishing figure when one considers that these instruments represented just 8.2% of sales in 1995. During the first half of 2000, 19.6% of all hearing instruments dispensed were digital compared with 11.0% during the same period of 1999. Analog programmable sales have increased slightly this year (to 28.9% of the market in the first half of 2000 compared with 25.4% for the same period in 1999), while sales of non-programmable aids decreased from 63.6% in 1999 to 51.5% this year.

Where is all this taking us? Should these trends continue, programmable and DSP instruments, as a group, will increase in unit volume by 55% or more for the sixth straight year in 2000. Just how long programmable/DSP aids will continue to grow at this pace is anyone’s guess. The larger question is what effect will these instruments—as well the new directional aids and other noise-reduction strategies—have on customer satisfaction? Knowles Electronics’ research (Dec. ‘96 HR) indicates there is a potential for this advanced technology to move customer satisfaction beyond the 75% level, and further research (being published in HR next month) provides evidence that even higher satisfaction levels can eventually be attained with advanced instrument features.

The “wild card” is how the higher prices of these instruments will influence the consumers’ perception of value and/or their first-time and repeat purchasing patterns. Several hearing instrument manufacturers are offering new products designed to appeal to people who have mild-to-moderate losses. These entry level and/or disposable hearing instruments (as well as leasing programs being developed by several manufacturers) also hold promise for attracting younger consumers, as well as other potential users who are “sitting on the fence” waiting for the right product at the right price.

Can these factors bolster the present—and seemingly immovable—20% market penetration rate of hearing instruments? The answer depends largely on the successful implementation of this new technology, the continued skill and dedication of all hearing care professionals in serving their clients, and a renewed dedication to educating the public and physicians on the value of hearing health care.

Karl Strom