These Boots were made for walk-ins


hearing centres

© PW

Opened on June 30, 2021, this is the UK’s first such Sonova-led state-of-the-art hearing care centre, a concept now blazing the trail in such dislocated locations as Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. What is it like inside this Boots World of Hearing clinic?

Location is everything in business, it has been said.

Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire was designed and built a hundred years ago to be “The Perfect Town”. Today, its rail station has an air of mothballed splendour, sepulchred within a shopping centre, and as you step out into its more-faux-than-neo-Georgian centre you could be forgiven for thinking that most of the folk navigating its surplus of coffee and charity shops have grown up and old with the project.

© PW     Welwyn Garden City is a “marriage of town and country” reads the rail station sign; one quick look at the town and you quickly see that the human side of that marriage has reached its golden wedding anniversary at least.

So, as a locale for an innovative hearing centre, this faded planning dream of the best blend of urban and country may indeed provide a kind of perfection, a town with the optimum range between foot- and zimmer-fall, a population in need of audiology.  For the auditively-trained eye, that step out of the station zone also reveals three businesses attending to hearing needs within yards of each other, and more nearby.

One of them is newer than social distancing, although its launch was designed to achieve the opposite: an intimate walk-in experience for investigating hearing solutions and the easiest high-street dynamic yet for those whose lives require the communication boost of a hearing device.

High tech... but with rationality

When launched, this first Boots Hearingcare World of Hearing flagship store was announced with pointers to its dazzling tech, and with the claim that the experience offered might “revolutionise” how people think about hearing care. But closely examine this clinic store, and what strikes one has less to do with revolution, and more with how succinctly the logic of a visit to the audiologist has been analysed and rethought to create the best journey through a space full of smart enabling tools to a diagnosis and a sale.

© Phonak

It has a Scandinavian simplicity with touches of wood warming its generally clean and clinical feel. A ceiling with a ribbed light strip effect combines with the elongated touchscreen tables to create a vanishing-point visual draw towards the piece-de-resistance technology at the back of the space (more on that immersion room below). Grey and blue colouring strengthens the Boots brand identity.

On hand to help explain it all, as she and other Boots Hearing Wellness Advisers are for the visiting public, was Dayna Wilson, who underlined the effect the centre has had since it opened six months ago: “You get people quite astonished by it and they have commented on how much better an experience it is against others they have had.”

© PW      Dayna Wilson, Hearing Wellness Adviser

Interactive information points

Acknowledging the clear match of Welwyn’s aged population to the store’s target audience, Dayna points out five main information points around the centre that are designed to make things easy for the hearing aid patient. These are of the kind the public is familiar with through phone and Apple centres. “Every customer that comes in says ‘ooh, it’s like an Apple store; it’s got that vibe”, she explains.

The three wall screens and two large just off-centre touchscreen tables use a system of small sensor “cups” that can be moved to white connection points to bring up specific info on screen and headphones. Here, at these tables, the rationality of delivering a comfortable, egalitarian exchange between adviser (or seller) and patient (or buyer) is an appreciable shift relative to many regular clinic experiences.

To begin with, the user is not seated and talked to - or at - on a different level. At the touchscreen tables, where the visitor can be left to watch and listen to explanations of hearing aid aspects, associated product, or lifestyle-related details, conversations take place in a dignified way for all, standing in decision-making postures, like engineers or planners, perhaps, all reminiscent of that Apple physical service dynamic.

“Customers enjoy the experience,” Dayna Wilson underlines.

The store’s many screens are a great boon, as Dayna Wilson points out: “Being able to show them what accessories look like from the shop floor without them needing an appointment, describing what they do, having them see a video about the accessories, saves so much diary time.”

The screens also serve for bringing up and talking through the patient’s audiogram.

The head

Beyond this main floorspace, notably accessed from the street without steps, on a flat transition easy for older adults, is what looks like a science fiction realm, a glass box with a mini cinema screen in front of which sits the customer close to a Klangfinder-made head-shaped device slung with different hearing aids. Here, at this imposing, intriguing space-age noggin, users can compare and contrast different hearing devices. And they should feel decidedly tech-chic. What boosts the impact of this immersion room experience—which is mostly for those who have made an appointment—is that the hearing aid is experienced in a variety of visually-assisted sound situations, currently: classical and rock music concerts, motorway driving, a restaurant, and a busy office, though these can be added to.

Furthermore, accessories such as Phonak Roger microphones can be tested here from inside and outside the room. Meanwhile, the open plan and convergent design of the centre means passers-by can peer down to the end of the space, drawn to something strange, enticing, and certainly innovative taking place.

The back rooms, equally logical and effective

Beyond the centre’s open first zone, at the end of a short corridor, are the audiologists’ consulting rooms, duly equipped with state-of-the-art soundproofing and audiology tools. But first, there is a self-screening suite where customers can sit and test their hearing with an iPad, either with assistance or minimum guidance.

The floorspace everywhere is carpeted, which aids acoustics as well as providing a homely feel. Many practices lack this simple detail.

© PW        Functional consulting room design pays special attention to soundproofing, and on the ceiling.

Interaction covidised

Launching in the middle of a pandemic meant compromising on one of the concept’s key mechanisms for breaking down barriers, with appointments becoming a safe measure that would limit walk-ins. “We have still had plenty of walk-ins,” Hearing Wellness Adviser Dayna confirmed, detailing other standard hygiene procedures including reducing and distancing seating and constantly wiping down surfaces. The planned use of a coffee machine to bring a hairdresser factor to visits was also put on ice until more comfortable post-pandemic times.

Next to the dormant coffee maker, however, is an array of products that completes the experience. “We’ve pretty much got everything that we would need. Not all stores have stock. I’d say it is quite unusual, but it’s so helpful,” points out Dayna.

A visible lab area

Finally, a quick dip behind the long counter that flanks the right of the open space, and here we find another innovation visible to the customer, a lab area complete with sink, equipped for minor repairs and checks that would normally be out of sight in consulting rooms. Here, walk-in customers can have hearing aids dried of built-up moisture, and tested to see if they are working to manufacturer settings. This is a great time-saving service.

© PW     Machinery for checks and  light repairs and is visible, and available to walk-in customers.

And this is where our visit ends, just as an elderly man walks out of the shop declaring “I can hear now!”

With or without revolutionary technology, those words are ultimately what everyone involved wants to hear.

© PW      The immersion room puts the patient in situations such as this main road driving scenario.


Source: Audio Infos UK #146- January/February 2022