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Wednesday / February 21.
HomemifeatureA Rural Solution

A Rural Solution

In Australia there is a severe shortage of optometrists to service the rural areas. Much talk has been made of providing a solution but few of those in a position of authority have brought anything workable to the table. That is until now. mivision speaks to Specsavers Managing Director Peter Larsen about their new ‘Regional Australia Program’, a program which could answer the question of “How are we going to get more optometrists to work in rural Australia?”

With more than 250 Australian stores now firmly in Specsavers sights, the company has taken an interesting new turn – stating a commitment and major new investment to take the company to regional Australia.

Under the banner of the recently launched Specsavers ‘Regional Australia Program’, managing director Peter Larsen is seeking to ensure that all communities around Australia are properly served with full-scope, full-time professional eye care. When we were told this two questions sprint to mind: why and how?

Regional Australia has been underserviced for too long and until now, in many cases, where a practice does exist it only sees optometry provided for a few days each week

The Why

Larsen explains himself quite simply: “A thorough regional presence has always been very much a part of the Specsavers model – in the UK for example we are well known for serving all communities, including some of the remotest parts of the country in places such as the Highlands of Scotland, and serving remote areas properly means having full-time optometry.

“The nature of our partnership model is that an optometrist is a partner in each store with a dispensing partner who, between the two of them, manage and provide a full service whenever the practice is open. Regional Australia has been underserviced for too long and until now, in many cases, where a practice does exist it only sees optometry provided for a few days each week. Since all Specsavers practices have an optometrist as a partner, there is always optometry cover.”

The How to a Rural Solution

So how will Specsavers succeed where so many others have not – in convincing optometrists in particular to take on regional practice?

Larsen says: “as every Specsavers practice has an optometrist as a partner, there’s plenty of incentive because together they own the profits of the business. It’s not a case of seeking employment in a regional location – it’s about building a business backed by the whole Specsavers support service. There’s a great salary guaranteed and, shared with the dispensing partner, all the profits of the practice.

“For many optometrists and store managers, lifestyle is a big part of it too. Many we have spoken to have said that while they have often considered establishing a practice outside the main metropolitan cities, they haven’t wanted to take the risk of building a business with no support and an uncertain income. Now prospective regional practice owner-operators don’t have to go in up to their necks in borrowings, they can work with us to build themselves a business with what we believe is a very strong future – and gain the benefits of a regional lifestyle at the same time,” says Larsen.

Based on the information in circulation, Specsavers is offering some extraordinary incentives including sign-on bonuses, no-cost store shop-fits and free display stock as well as immediate investment in local advertising and marketing.

Larsen says his team is talking to an increasing number of independent practices who have seen the success of others and are now ready to take the plunge themselves. “That’s right. In the first wave of the Specsavers practice roll-out we saw more than 50 practices convert and across the board those practices have seen an average growth in turnover of more than 65 per cent. Cost of goods has fallen significantly too, offering something of a golden scenario.”

The growth in turnover of 65 per cent almost seems unheard of for an established practice and something a lot of industry watches have been wary of but Larsen points out the reason for this growth in revenue is due to a major investment in marketing the value-for-money proposition. “It’s been embraced by customers who we are finding no longer see buying spectacles as a grudge purchase. Therefore we are attracting record numbers into our practices and that’s leading to the major growth per practice.”

One of the biggest problems regional practices have had is planning for future succession and realisation of equity; however Larsen says “what we are now seeing is an acceptance that converting to Specsavers offers a new route to practice succession”.

Rural Roll-out

Larsen goes on to explain that the Regional Australia Program has been meticulously planned for and will see some significant expansion throughout 2010.

“Initially we will cover quite a number of the larger regional centres where we have not yet established a presence, in conjunction with optom and dispensing partners. However, we will also be looking to go further afield with those ready to make the move. We know from our European experience that some of the most successful and profitable practices are regional and remote – where an offer of real value can make a real difference especially to those customers on lower incomes which is part and parcel of the regional landscape.”

So, what has triggered the launch of this regional activity?

“Two key drivers really”, Larsen explains, “firstly, we have really gained ground and critical mass in the metropolitan areas and, secondly, we stated a commitment to this type of program when we talked to Federal Government at the time of our Port Melbourne lab opening in the middle of 2009. We were asked about our intentions for the regions and the lack of committed primary healthcare in many areas – and made a commitment to try and do something about it. We were pleased to put our hand up and to see that government had similar thinking to ourselves.”