Contact Lenses

Differentiating an Independent Eyecare Practice

By Thomas F. Steiner

Director of Market Research,

Review of Optometric Business

First in a series of articles on “Differentiating Your Practice”

SYNOPSIS

Set your practice apart by offering premium vision correction options and lettingpatients know that you do. Also, offering specialtylenses not availableelsewherelocks in the patient to purchase from you.

ACTION POINTS

SPECIALIZE IN PREMIUM OPTIONS. Let patients know how youofferspecialized vision correction solutions–different from your competition.
RUN THE NUMBERS. Specialty CL wearers arehighly profitable dueto greater visit frequency and specialty lenses purchases at your office.
DELIVER THE TOTAL PACKAGE. Offer personalized service along with the specialty options.

Currently there are 58,000 eyecare professionals practicing in the U.S., one for every 3,500 people using vision correction. Because the frequency of patient visits to ECPs is relatively low–typically just one visit every 2-3 years–the supply of ECPs is fully adequate to satisfy patient demand in most geographic areas. That makes primary eyecare a highly competitive field in most locales. Patients have lots of choice.

Unlike many other medical specialties, independent ECPs face competition from some of the largest and most sophisticated retailers in the world, including the likes of Walmart, Costco and LensCrafters. Commercial providers’ market share has grown over the past four decades. Currently, there are more than 10,000 chain optical locations operating in the U.S. Optical chains account for one-third of the comprehensive eye exams performed in the U.S., and chains and Internet sellers for over half of eyewear sales and about 45 percent of contact lens sales.

Eyecare has been a ripe market for optical chains because device sales, not professional services, produce most ECP revenue. Chains are able to offer much the same array of device options as independents. And with their greater buying power and convenient location and hours, the chains enjoy competitive advantages.

“Wowing Patients with State-of-the-Art Technology”

Golie Roshandel Keovan, OD
Belmont Eye Care
Chicago, IL
www.belmonteyecare.com

“I enjoy offering my patients an amazing experience,” says Golie Roshandel Keovan, OD, owner of Belmont Eye Care, located in Chicago. “I like to ‘wow’ them with my state-of-the-art technology and top-of-the-line products.”

When she opened Belmont Eye Care, Dr. Keovan’s success strategy was to differentiate herself and her independent practice by going above and beyond the standard eye exam by customizing services, contact lens fittings and products uniquely to each patient. As a result, her patients have written exceptional online reviews of Belmont Eye Care. They also have referred friends and family, greatly contributing to growing the practice.

One way she differentiates Belmont Eye Care from most practices—including retail chains—is by offering customized, premium high-definition contact lenses rather than the typical one-size-fits-all lenses. Dr. Keovan educates her patients about the benefits of custom premium contact lenses such as the SynergEyes Duette, Duette Progressive and, for irregular corneas, UltraHealth. She strives to provide patients with the best quality in eyewear, contacts and supplemental products. If, at any time, patients are not happy with their purchases she offers them store credit.

“I want my patients to always feel comfortable making their purchases with me,” she explains. “With the store credit, I want them to feel like they are invested in me and my practice.” Dr. Keovan will even offer a price match for contact lenses to encourage patients to remain loyal rather than shop with an online vendor.

The result: 85 percent of her contact lens patients purchase their lenses and related products through her practice.

Practice differentiation is critical to financial success

For any business, a fundamental strategy is to define its positioning within the competitive landscape. Positioning clarifies the unique bundle of product and service offerings that will differentiate a business from competition and will identify the type of customer it hopes to attract. (For a detailed discussion of practice differentiation, visit www.mba-ce.com and download “Designing an EyeCare Service Experience.”)
Despite the importance of practice positioning, too few independent ECPs pay much attention to differentiating their practices from either commercial providers or from other independents. The vast majority of independents offer a broad range of standard professional services and the same array of products offered by most other providers.

A lack of differentiation makes an independent ECP vulnerable. It increases the relevance of price in consumers’ value perceptions. That puts an independent at a disadvantage because of the greater economies of scale and buying power of the commercial providers. The reality is that few independents can achieve both adequate profitability and compete with the commercialists on price.

But the future for independent ECPs holds good news: There is no evidence that in the foreseeable future optical chains and Internet sellers will capture a dominant market share and make independent ECPs obsolete.

Most consumers continue to choose independents for eyecare. This preference is grounded in two benefits that commercial providers find more difficult to offer. First, independents have a greater ability to nurture long-term patient relationships and provide a continuity of personalized care over a lifetime. Second, independents have shown a greater ability to remain at the forefront of eyecare technology and offer patients advanced solutions, earlier in product life cycles.

An independent ECP who provides patients with these two benefits – continuity of personalized care and leading edge technology – can compete effectively with optical chains, minimize inroads from Internet sellers and capture market share from other independents. When consistently delivered and well communicated, these benefits set a practice apart.

Dispensing specialty CLs says high tech, personalized service

Contact lenses are an important revenue producer in most independent practices, usually responsible for 25-30 percent of total practice revenue. Over the past 15 years, contact lens sales among independent ECPs (and in the total optical market) have consistently grown at a faster rate than eyeglass sales. This has occurred both because contact lens penetration in the U.S. population has grown and wearers have upgraded to advanced technology products.

Studies also show that the average annual revenue and profit generated by a contact lens patient are substantially higher than by an eyeglass-only patient. That is true because contact lens patients have more frequent eye exams, pay higher exam fees, purchase products more frequently and also purchase eyeglasses. Contact lens dispensing will remain a vital component in the financial performance of independent ECPs.

The type of contact lenses that an independent chooses to fit can become an important practice differentiator. The top three soft lens manufacturers account for over 90 percent of sales, and their products are available at almost every location dispensing contacts, including optical chains. Despite this fact, it is possible for an independent ECP to differentiate the practice by the type of contact lens dispensed.

By offering specialty lenses with unique benefits, such as the SynergEyes line–lenses not dispensed in chain optical locations or online or by a majority of independents–a practice can set itself apart in a crowded marketplace and assure patient loyalty. Retention of the device sales is an annuity stream for the practice.

The difference is effectively communicating and reinforcing the benefits of the product. When done well,patients are more than willing to pay a premium price for the product.

Fitting lenses such as those offered by SynergEyes communicates to patients a practice’s interest and skill at tailoring a unique solution to a patient’s individual needs. This tends to take price out of the value equation. Many chain optical shops and independents will not take the time to provide this level of personalized service. This can be turned into a powerful competitive advantage that locks-in patients for life.

Thomas F. Steiner, Director of Market Research for ROB, has spent more than 25 years helping eyecare practices succeed, including pioneering the introduction of color contact lenses into optometry. To contact him: tnlsteiner@comcast.net

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