Article Date: 6/1/2008

Set up a Dynamite Dispensary for Practice Success

Set up a Dynamite Dispensary for Practice Success

Learn how to develop a cutting-edge dispensary that will keep patients coming back to you for exams and new eyewear.

By Dave Ziegler, O.D., Milwaukee, Wis.

A TOP-NOTCH, state-of-the-art optical dispensary is essential to the future success of your practice. An optical dispensary represents 50% to 60% of total revenue in a typical practice.1 So your dispensary must cater to the eyecare needs and wants of your patients in order for your practice to remain competitive. And you'll soon discover that patients often buy what they want more than what they need.

A dispensary ensures that patients receive optimal eye care from start to finish. When patients go through the exam process — from vision testing to eyewear dispensing — you must be certain they receive accurate prescriptions and fashionable eyewear that are perfectly suited for their needs.

Today, most practices have optical dispensaries, but they face stiff competition from the big-box retailers that offer discounted prices on frames and lenses. But you can thrive in this competitive climate if you follow these guidelines for setting up a dispensary of attractive, high-quality products.

1. Start Exploring

Before you make even one phone call to a frame or optical display manufacturer, learn all you can about the eyewear business and the latest fashions. I traveled around the country to visit the dispensaries at several successful practices. With the owners' consent, I took photos of the displays and made sketches of their floor plans to analyze patient flow.

I'd advise you to read journal articles about how to set up a dispensary, and visit trade shows to see a huge variety of frames and learn more about the newest optical technology.

2. Lay the Foundation

Just as important as educating yourself about the eyewear business is learning about the key concept of eyewear sales: merchandising. Attractive, sophisticated displays draw patients in. Next time you stroll through a department store, notice how clothing and other products are presented. For instance, finer stores avoid stacking clothing in favor of displaying items on mannequins and other decorative props.

Also, many doctors make the mistake of showcasing a whole wall of frames on a board, which can mean that hundreds of frames are clustered in one area. That type of display makes it very difficult for patients to differentiate one frame from another. We prefer to present our frames in collections. For example, we have Coach, Gucci and BCBG collections in separate areas to build brand awareness with the use of point-of-purchase materials. We use props like pottery, glass sculptures and polished stones to complement the displays.

In addition, we use special lighting to show off the frames. Overhead fluorescent lighting is the least flattering to patients who are trying on eyewear. We use recessed and track lighting, with incandescent and halogen bulbs, to enhance the appearance of the frames and displays. Pendant lighting above the dispensing tables also highlights the area nicely.

For professional guidance, consider hiring an optical design firm, such as Eye Designs LLC (eyedesigns.com) or Fashion Optical Displays (fashionoptical.com).

3. Showcase a Variety

Giving patients a wide variety of frames from which to choose is essential. When selecting frames, include several options in the mid-price range, roughly $300 to $400. These mid-price frames should represent about 40% of your total collection. They'll become your bread and butter.

However, don't be afraid to dedicate 20% to 25% of your inventory to high-end frames ($600 to $700). We were surprised to learn that some of our patients looked for the brand names they recognized and purchased the $700 frames.

On the other hand, for some patients, the high-end frames make our mid-priced selections appear to be a better value. A $300 frame seems like a bargain when it's sitting next to a more expensive style.

In a new practice, aim to display about 600 to 700 frames. You may add consigned frames to beef up your inventory. For example, VSP Vision Care, Sacramento, Calif., a leading provider of comprehensive eyecare benefit plans, offers a certain number of frames for free that you can display in your office.

When you set up your display, make sure you allocate a specific number of slots for each brand of frames to create balance. Otherwise, you run the risk of purchasing too many frames from one manufacturer and too few from another company.

4. Gain Staff Buy-in

It's a good idea to get your staff involved in the decision-making when investing in new eyewear. Before we bring in a new line of frames, my staff and I visit different Web sites and call colleagues to find out what's popular. Then we meet with eyewear sales representatives and decide together which frames we'd like to purchase for our dispensary. It's a large investment, so we want to make sure the frames will sell.

5. Choose Optical Labs Carefully

Don't make the mistake of choosing a lab solely because of its prices. Select a company that offers the best customer service and product quality. If a patient waits 2 weeks for a pair of eyeglasses and his order arrives with defects, the patient will blame you, not the lab. And that will reflect badly on your practice.

Superior customer service is essential if you want to differentiate your dispensary from the competition. … Many practices and retail outlets sell eyeglasses, but they don't necessarily offer great service.

6. Invest in the Right Equipment

A cutting-edge dispensary will be equipped with the latest equipment, such as the pupillometer to measure monocular pupil diameter. Some optical dispensaries still use a ruler to measure how to place a lens in front of a patient's eye, but this method doesn't provide the best lens performance.

Consider investing in one of the many camera systems that takes digital photos of patients wearing various frames, so they can view themselves on a computer screen and choose the style they like best. A digital camera system makes frame selection easier, and it's especially useful for patients who can't see themselves in the mirror without their prescription eyeglasses. It's a nice tool that sets your optical dispensary apart from the rest.

7. Train Staff

We teach our staff the core principles of our patient care philosophy. During staff meetings, we discuss how we should treat patients, how to handle their concerns and how to subtly encourage them to refer their friends and families to our practice.

In addition, we teach our optical staff how to present eyewear to patients. Once your dispensary staff members are well trained, consider sending a secret shopper to your optical dispensary occasionally to detect areas that need fine-tuning.

Superior customer service is essential if you want to differentiate your dispensary from the competition. And it's the best way to grow your eyewear business. Many practices and retail outlets sell eyeglasses, but they don't necessarily offer great service.

8. Boost Capture Rates

Patients will be more likely to return to your practice to purchase eyewear if you educate them during their exam about what they need and why they need it. Patients rely on you to explain their vision needs.

After an exam, I take patients to the optical area, introduce them to the staff and offer my recommendations. This reinforces to patients that the process isn't over. They still need to select eyeglasses. What's more, if you always have someone on staff to help patients select frames, they'll be more likely to return to purchase eyewear.

9. Streamline Purchases

Make sure that when you sell your eyewear you offer patients package deals, providing several features for a single price. Selling eyeglasses to patients with a laundry list of options, such as antireflective lenses and UV-blocking features can be over-whelming. Most patients appreciate simplicity. Packaging makes their decision, and the purchasing process, that much easier.

10. Customize Prescriptions

We try to emphasize different ways to solve patients' vision problems. Often, suggesting a second pair of eyeglasses is the way to go. So learn about your patients' lifestyles. Patients who swim, water ski, go boating or spend a great deal of time outdoors in the summer need polarizing sunglasses. Patients who spend their workday at a computer need eyeglasses that are suited for computer work.

11. Wrap Packages in a Bow

Another way we differentiate our optical dispensary is by educating patients about their eyewear. When we dispense eyeglasses, we give patients a folder containing information about the frames and lenses they've selected, including details of the features, instructions for proper care and a thank you card from our staff. When patients pick up their eyeglasses, they like to know what they've purchased. At this point, they may have forgotten what they selected and what we told them during their eye exam. So we take advantage of this opportunity to sell them their eyeglasses all over again.

Establish Value

Offering full-scope, high-quality eye care establishes value. And if you don't establish the value of your eye care, products and services, patients will search for it elsewhere. So make sure your patients know you offer better service and quality than other optical dispensaries. Remember, patients aren't always looking for the cheapest price. They want a fair and honest price, but they'll be happy to buy eyewear from you if you offer the services, selection and quality they can't find anywhere else. nOD

Dr. Ziegler is senior partner in a group private practice in Milwaukee, Wis., and is on the faculty of the Management Business Academy. You can reach him at dziegler@ameritech.net.

Reference
1. Key Metrics of Optometric Practice. Practice Advancement Associates: Management & Business Academy for Eye Care Professionals. Naperville, Ill., 2007;7.



Optometric Management, Issue: June 2008