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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor May 18, 2005 - Tip #174 
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Competing for Contact Lens Sales

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Additional Information

I presented a practice management lecture last week at a conference and part of the program included breakout discussion groups. After discussing the changing landscape of the contact lens product marketplace, one doctor in my group stated that he didn't think it was worth bothering to sell contact lenses in his practice anymore. He felt that if he were to try to compete with the new sellers of contacts, such as big box discount stores, warehouse clubs and mail order vendors, there would be such little profit in the materials that he might just drop the service. He would rather examine and prescribe, and advise the patient to go wherever they wish to fill his lens Rx. Others in the group echoed the sentiment, even if they were not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

Not so fast! Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water! I love to challenge conventional thinking, so I thought about this concept after the meeting and tried to look to the future. I just can't agree that dropping contact lens sales is a good idea. I believe independent practices can compete very well for contact lens sales, and if a few positive changes are made in our practices we can win the vast majority of contact lens reorders.

Why should we bother?

We can talk about the fact that providing contact lenses is a patient convenience, or that it allows the optometric practice to ensure that the patient receives the correct lens parameters, but there is a far more practical reason. There is a profit to be made. As doctors, we often get uncomfortable with that concept, but we are in practice to make a profit. This newsletter is about the business aspects of professional practice, and profit is a primary goal of all businesses. We should never reject a profit center, as long as it's within our practice scope and is ethical.

To be really certain about the profit motive to sell contact lenses, please do the math with me before we go further. You pay $X for a multipack of disposable lenses. You sell the multipacks for $Y. Take the difference between these two amounts and multiply by the number of multipacks that make up a year's supply (eight if the lenses are 2-week disposables). Take that amount and multiply by the number of contact lens patients in your practice - let's say 1,000 for round numbers. The total is your annual profit on material sales alone, without fitting fees. I think you see my point.

Evidence that we can compete

Let's take a look at a few other industries that parallel our situation for clues to what may happen in the marketplace. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Why do people still buy paper towels at the supermarket, when they could buy them at a warehouse club for much less?
  • Why do people still buy milk at the local convenience store when it is much cheaper at the supermarket?
  • Why do people still buy books at Border's when they could come home and order the same book online at Amazon.com?
  • Why do people stay at the Ritz-Carlton when there are Holiday Inns in the same town?
The answer is that people buy for various reasons. For some, price is the primary factor, but for many it isn't, even for commodity items like milk. Let's examine some of the benefits a buyer might get from buying contact lenses through your practice, and let's try to come up with even more benefits that we could add.

Of course, we can compete and win the vast majority of contact lens business! Look at all we have going for us. The big factor is we had the buyer first! He is ours to lose! Additionally, we have a tremendous advantage in the area of trust and authority. Let's look at other factors.

Two groups of patients

We can really separate your contact lens patients into two groups: those who visit you fairly regularly for eye exams as recommended, and those who don't see the value in regular eye care, but still consider you as their eye doctor when they need something. We love the first group, but both groups are valuable patients. The first group should be easy. They are in your office, they love you, and they need more lenses. If you lose them, it must be price or some other factor about how you do business. We'll discuss price below, but you can make changes if needed and keep the sales from this group. By the way, it's very important to try to dispense an annual supply to this group, so they will have no need for interim reorders. Use manufacturer rebates and even offer your own in-office price discount on annual supplies, and make sure your staff suggests the full year supply.

The second group is far more at risk for going elsewhere, and if you want to win that business, you'll have to be willing to keep up with the marketplace and the competition in ways that are possible. This group would really like to avoid the eye exam in many cases and they think they just need more lenses, and since your office will not provide more lenses without the needed exam, they are tempted to look elsewhere.

Is it convenience?

We often hear that convenience is a major reason patients go elsewhere to buy replacement orders of contacts. Our patients want to order more contacts in their pajamas at 2:00 AM, so they go to the Internet. Maybe so, but if we look deeper at the convenience issue, you'll find that you can beat the competition in several ways.
  • Convenience has many facets, so make sure you step up where you can. The fact that your office is near your patients' homes is an advantage if you capitalize on it. Warning: tough questions to follow.
  • How easy are you to do business with - really? Compare your office with the business world, such as small retail or banking. What are your hours? Any odd start and quit times, are lunch hours closed, are any half-days closed? Do you offer Saturdays and some evenings? How is your parking? Is there plenty of it and is it close to the entrance to your office?
  • Do you have multipacks in stock in enough quantity to sell a full year's supply? Chances are you don't and you've told yourself that the cost of stocking that entire inventory would be too much to bear. Having lenses in stock offers some big advantages that most ODs overlook, and the one-time investment is surprisingly low. Do the math on stocking eight boxes in each power from -.50 to -6.00 in your favorite brand and you'll be amazed at how cheap it is. It doesn't get any more convenient than your staff handing the boxes to the patient at the end of an exam or when they just call up and need more. No logging on, no shipping, no waiting.
  • Promote the perks of doing business with your office, such as an emergency trial lens to hold a patient over, or expert advice when a question arises. Patients want to do business with a practice that caters to their needs in every way; they reason that staying on your good side will be in their best interest when they need service.
  • You could set up your own e-commerce section on your practice web site by having a web designer build a shopping cart service for you, or by contracting with one of the commercial services that does this for optometric practices via a link that is placed on your site. This service definitely puts you on the same playing field as the large mail order vendors, but think ahead and make sure you're ready to promote your online ordering service to every contact lens wearer. If you don't, no one will know it exists and usage will be low. If you do direct everyone to Internet ordering, it's only a few clicks away to shop your competition. With the commercial services, you will also have to enter patient name and lens data for every case, even if only a small percentage of them use the service.
Is it price?

Price is definitely an important factor in competing for contact lens business. My advice is to set prices competitively, but don't try to be the lowest. By offering other benefits as described above, we don't have to be the lowest price. The large Internet contact lens sellers list prices on their website and they are not out of the range where independent practices can be, so they can serve as a good guide. The big box retailers can buy products so low and can live with such low margins, independents really can't compete on price with them. If you get a patient who really wants the lowest price, just be understanding, helpful and pleasant about it. I do not recommend changing your prices on the spot to match a competitor; it demonstrates a lack of integrity.

Best wishes for continued success,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.

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