While corporate Australia breathes a sigh of relief as we circuit around the worst of the world financial meltdown, it is evident that the retail market place is still recovering. Vision correction is something that can only be delayed for a short time before the impact on the person affects their lifestyle. The IBISWorld Report on Optometry and Optical Dispensing in Australia (February 2009) notes that the industry is sensitive to not only deferral by consumers in times of recession but also the level of household income and the proportion of the population with ancillary cover in their private health insurance. Over the last 18 to 24 months, with many households tightening their budgets, these factors have been very open to change.
The analysis of the Australian Optical Market prepared by F.R. Perry and Associates for ODMA (July 2009) shows another effect of increasingly being part of the global economy. The report states: “During 2008 the rate of consolidation within the eye care retailing industry increased markedly.”
This consolidation and increasing trend towards globalisation in the industry as a whole is not limited to just Luxottica and Specsavers. The Optical Superstore, Blink, Eyecare Partners and Safilo are all expanding in the local market. Such increased competition in retail optics, coupled with changes in consumer behaviour make it easy to see the new challenges practices are facing.
Consumer sentiment and actions at the retail level are not the only forces at work. The abundance of new technologies and strong competition among optical suppliers also challenge practice owners and staff. From 25 products 20 years ago to more than 250 today, plus new manufacturing techniques and computerised management and service systems, all of these factors add to the demands on the practice. Practitioners have to gain knowledge and understanding in areas they didn’t even know existed when most of them were at college or university.
Just because a practice draws its patients from a lower income area shouldn’t mean that it can’t offer them quality products with the latest technology.
Optometrists, optical dispensers and their staff are sensing more and more the pressures of these diverse needs. It’s no longer just about the clinical background or purely lenses and frames; today’s successful optical practice has a complex set of parameters where they need to excel. Under these circumstances, maintaining business between a supplier and practice is something that can’t be taken for granted.
The Essilor Solution
In the 28 years since Essilor was formed, it has worked to align with practice needs, looking for ways to create not just a business relationship but a fully fledged practice – supplier partnership.
As a company Essilor has made specific moves towards creating solutions, specifically based on the requirements of independent practices, regarding product portfolio, services, practice management, education and business support. To that end, Essilor Australia has come up with “Essilor Solutions” the complete offer which goes beyond lenses.
Pascal Toneatti, CEO of Essilor Australia sees the Essilor Solutions as a truly differentiated offer: “More than ever, practitioners today look towards their suppliers for support beyond the product offer”, he says.
“Not all optometrists or optical dispensers have been to business school, IT is not a speciality common in optical training courses and yet this type of expertise is part of modern practice.
“While we can’t replace a business degree, over the years, Essilor has accumulated a lot of experiences in the areas of product, service, business support, as well as education and practice management. This learning has been enriched and will evolve further in future, by many long-term customer relationships.”
Just having a lens for a patient is no longer an issue; there are almost too many lenses for practitioners to choose from. On the other hand clever construction of a practice product portfolio is a different matter. Different practices address different market segments and yet they may all use the same offer. Just because a practice draws its patients from a lower income area shouldn’t mean that it can’t offer them quality products with the latest technology. With a wide and deep portfolio of lenses and trusted worldwide brands like Varilux, Crizal and Nikon, Essilor has used its leadership to enable practices to build a solid lens portfolio to suit their local market.
Even with such a range available, practitioners deal constantly with the internal conflict of ensuring their primary concern is the patient’s ocular health whilst simultaneously balancing or subduing the retail side of their business. In fact, the ODMA report goes as far as to say: “The result of this reluctance is that many consumers do not receive the best eye care solution, irrespective of cost.” The report later adds, “Consumers…are willing to increase their investment in eyewear if they are given compelling reasons to do so… It is also clear that the final decision will frequently be based on perceived value rather than simply cost”. The correct portfolio will help provide the patient with perceived value, but clearly the practitioner also needs additional tools to help complete their offer.
Technology has changed the service expectations in many industries. For instance, exactly when did you last speak to a real bank manager? In optics, along with the need for a broad product range, the service expectation remains extremely high. Spectacle products can be called mass produced “hand-made” items as, for the vast majority, each job has its own individual characteristics. These days on-time delivery of prescription lenses depends on a smooth interface between people and technology as on-time delivery means nothing without quality and accuracy.
From the voice on the phone to the computer algorithm to create a Varilux 360º lens, Essilor draws on the experience and expertise of its network of 240 labs world wide as well as its local fitting and customer service teams to keep services personal yet efficient.
Professional registration boards are all focused on continuing professional development (CPD), continuing education (CE), or continuing professional education (CPE). These are seen as the means to ensure the public gets the best possible care from the professionals that they trust. Demands from independent practitioners for education and training go well beyond the clinical.
Most modern practices are selling products developed and launched in the last five years, so not only is it hard to keep totally informed about their features and benefits, it is also true that university and college curricula may struggle to keep pace with this fast moving technology. What was best practice 10 years ago is quickly supplanted. In addition, as competition heats up, the communication skills and professional sales skills of practice staff are vital to ongoing success.
Essilor has always had strong links to education programs. Varilux Academy, a partnership with the International Centre for Eyecare Education at UNSW, has, since it started in 2002, trained 6,500 practitioners across the region. By certifying local staff as Varilux Academy presenters, the programme has been able to reach an addition 22,000 practitioners with topics reaching from sales skills through to product technology.
Training needs go beyond lenses, so individualised one-on-one sessions can also be delivered by Essilor’s sales team. Skills and the right information to use with these skills is a necessity for all practice staff if there is to be a holistic approach to the patient’s clinical and eyewear choices.
A practice requirement often discussed by Essilor customers, is the management of a practice in the most seamless way possible. The combination of the right software, hardware and its usage support the achievement of this goal. Leading edge equipment like Essilor’s Visioffice dispensing terminal holds the answer. As well as being able to take very accurate measurements in seconds, Visioffice also supports the frame choice and shows the patient a variety of features for their particular prescription and lens choice. Couple this technology with practice management software like Sunix, which captures and processes patient data, and you begin to build a truly paperless environment. Add an Essilor tracer system, remote edging capabilities and the online ordering system Winlinx and you have a great basis to run a seamless practice process.
Increased competition and the need to truly differentiate the practice offer leads to the need to continuously analyse, build and market the business.
For independent practices it can be a challenge to access best practice examples. Essilor’s team shares with its customers its market knowledge and offers proven marketing initiatives to drive the business and communicate with patients on multiple levels. Complete campaigns are available that address the time and resource constraints of many practices.
Tim Thurn has a Bachelor of Optometry from the University of New South Wales and Graduate Certificate of Business from the American University of Paris. Originally an Optometrist, Tim is now is Essilor’s Director of Professional Services for the Asia Pacific Region and has worked for Essilor for 20 years. Tim has spoken on technical and marketing topics to optometrists and optical dispensers across Europe, Australasia and the U.S.