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Tuesday / May 21.
HomemitwocentsEnsure your Future as an Independent

Ensure your Future as an Independent

Business consultant Michael Jacobs reflects on lessons learnt from a high profile career in optics, giving mivision his ‘two cents worth’ on targeted marketing and the future for independent optometry, Australian-style.

Corporate and major franchised optometry groups are the dominant players today with the top two controlling over 60 per cent of that market in dollars terms. Their target market is, by and large, the general population and they use selling techniques that most broadly apply to that general population – price and brand. So how can the independent survive when their access to major brands is limited and their buying power is significantly less than the high volume chains and franchises?

In my 20 years working for an American company I learned one lesson very quickly – Americans don’t want to hear about problems – they want to hear about solutions and opportunities. This doesn’t mean they ignore problems. Rather, they analyse the problem and look at potential solutions that might represent an opportunity. So, when you look at the major players in our market and their apparent dominance, do you see a problem or do you see an opportunity?

I would suggest there are some very clear opportunities and ones that the mass marketers are not all that interested in. For a start, not every patient is driven solely by price considerations or big name brands. So, what are they driven by? The answers to this question will define the potential target markets for many independents.

It is important not to become a slave to brand but rather to style, quality and price

Promote Your Independence

First, identify what you are not going to do! You are probably not going to compete head on with the majors on price – not just because you don’t have the buying power to match their prices – you also don’t have the advertising power to drive the same volume of business they need to survive. Similarly, one supplier owns or controls many of the most popular frame brands so while you may be able to access some of those brands, you don’t have the advertising power to draw patients to them in your practice. So, how will you differentiate
your practice from the competition?

A couple of years ago one of the major health funds in Australia commissioned a survey of their health insurance clients’ wants and needs for optometry services. Up to that point the health fund’s preferred providers had been the same companies who control 60 per cent of the market. However, the feedback they received indicated that their clients wanted access to independent optometrists. So, here is one clear differentiator – a significant number of potential patients would prefer to patronise an independent optometrist versus a franchise or corporate operator.

Differentiate Your Offering

The next differentiator is product range. Each franchise/corporate store carries identical or near identical product across all their outlets. The patient wanting to stand out in the crowd is going to look for something unique – something they are unlikely to get at a chain. While it may be tempting to carry those brands that many want to wear, you have to challenge yourself: are you just becoming a branch
of your biggest corporate competitor?
Can you match their buying power? How will you compete when they decide to discount that product?

Given that there are a large number of suppliers to independent optometry, it is important that you select products that suit the target market(s) you choose to pursue. Even if there are well recognised brands available from the independent wholesalers, more and more of these are falling into the hands of corporates. You can no longer expect such brands to remain the exclusive property of independent optometry wholesalers for long. Therefore, it is important not to become a slave to brand but rather to style, quality and price. Create your own image and build the brand of your practice – not the product that you sell.

The car industry is a classic example of this reality. For many years, car retailers carried a single brand and relied on the power of that brand to create their market for them. Today, most car retailers carry a range of products from a variety of manufacturers. No longer are they known as the Holden or Ford dealership – they are more likely to be known by the more generic term such as James Brown Motors or similar… and James Brown Motors is building its reputation on its own merits of service and performance, not relying solely on the strength of the brand of vehicle they sell.

Identify – and Identify With – Your Market

As I noted earlier, the chains market to the masses but not all patients fit into the mass-market category. In fact there are dozens of specialty groupings largely ignored by the chains that are open to servicing by independents. The most obvious are ethnic and linguistic groups.

Children are another patient category largely ignored by most chains. Focusing on children has the added benefit of targeting the parents of children simultaneously. An obvious adjunct to paediatric optometry is behavioural optometry, and contrary to popular myth there are many successful behavioural practices in Australia.

The list of market niches is endless, some product driven and some service driven. Take, for instance, the sports market. There are a number of significant sports where properly prescribed eyewear can make the difference between winning and losing, enjoying or not enjoying. Examples would be golf and tennis. And then there are the avid scuba divers who need prescription inserts for their dive goggles and the list goes on. Cycling is another popular sport. When was the last time you saw a cyclist not wearing glasses? Virtually all wear glasses of some kind and many of them prescription glasses or sunglasses. Not wearing glasses when cycling is tantamount to not wearing safety glasses when using a power saw.

Speaking of safety glasses, this is a large and rapidly growing market. While the major corporations such as mining companies already recognise the necessity of safety glasses many smaller local businesses do not. Some simple local education in your area could create a market almost overnight.

Communicate With Your Market

Finally you need to communicate with your chosen target market(s). If for example you are targeting the paediatric market, you need to demonstrate to the buying public that this is your specialty. The first and most obvious way is in the imagery you use in any promotional material and the way you fit out your practice. Advertising, for example, would typically use an image of a young couple with a child because the parents are the health care decision makers for the child and of course you hope to capture the parents as patients too.

Create a fun environment for children in your practice. Ensure there are toys to keep the child occupied in the waiting room. Offer to book an appointment for the whole family at the same time and have a staff member on hand to look after the child while the parent is in the consulting room. Have prominent signage promoting the benefits to parents of buying product from your practice. For example “Children’s frames carry a two year unlimited warranty against accidental breakage” – an offer available from a number of suppliers.

Most importantly, send that family away believing there is nowhere else in the world they would trust their eye care to. They will do your advertising for you, telling their friends and colleagues what a great experience they had at your practice. They will become your Raving Fans.1

Lessons for Independent Success

1/ Ensure patients or potential patients know that you are an independent
2/ Ensure your practice and product offering are unique and clearly differentiated from the chains
3/ Identify your niche or niches – your target markets.