Article Date: 4/1/2010

Serving the New Consumer

Serving the New Consumer

Today's patients want real value, not bargains. Here's how to create value without lowering prices.

By Neil Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO

The current economic situation has made all of us view the world a little differently. After all, we've invested in our practices based on the assumption that we'll have a stable or even a growing income. But when people are facing an uncertain financial future, they hold on to their money a little more tightly.

In early 2010, 46% of Americans in one poll1 described the economy as “poor,” and 57% said that it's “getting worse.” In addition, American households spent an average $62 per day in early 2010, compared to $104 per day in early 2008.1

If people are spending 40% less per day, then it's bound to affect our bottom line, right? Certainly, people will skip eye exams and skimp on vision correction?

Not quite. People are spending less overall, but they're continuing to spend money on things that matter. Maintaining healthy vision for themselves and their families fits into that category.

In fact, in an April 2009 survey, 64% of respondents said their rate of eyewear purchases had not changed over the past year, whereas 28% said purchases decreased and 6% said they increased.2

What's more, today's discerning shoppers are motivated by real value — truly beneficial products of high quality, not the cheapest bargain options. This is good news for optometrists. Instead of a competition to offer rock-bottom prices, it's time to engage in a race to the peak of vision care value, by offering top-notch products and services.

What Does the Price Tag Say?

The decline in consumer spending is certainly understandable. People are looking at their futures, and they're scared about retirement and how they'll pay for their children's educations. This anxiety about the future is changing their behavior today. Although they're not sealing their wallets completely, they're spending money differently. Their values as consumers are changing.

What does this new consumer want? Research shows that people are becoming more frugal. They're staying home more, delaying major purchases, using coupons, lowering the heat and cutting back on travel.3

However, price isn't the new consumer's only motivator. In fact, it's not even the greatest motivator. When 500 people were asked, “What do you associate with value?” price wasn't at the top of the list:3

  1. Quality (135)
  2. More for the same price/added value (122)
  3. Long-lasting (115)
  4. Lowest price (94)

This hasn't always been the case. In a February 2008 survey,3 46% of respondents agreed that “Price is not the most important factor — getting exactly what I want is.” Today, that number is 58%. And now 60% of respondents say, “I buy based on quality, not price,” compared to just 36% in February 2008.3

Consumers increasingly believe that low price isn't necessarily a good value. In fact, in 2008, when the United States saw its worst holiday shopping season since 1970, the International Council of Shopping Centers blamed “heavy discounting” as one of the primary causes.4 Low prices lower people's perception of quality. That's why leading with the deal is unlikely to persuade shoppers — it might even make them suspicious.

What Constitutes a Great Buy Today?

Price alone doesn't make something seem like a great buy. So what does? People are looking for the real thing — rational signals of value such as a mix of low price and premium quality, great customer service and free extras.

When asked to weight the following “added values” when they make purchases, 500 consumers responded that they found the following things satisfying:3

■ 67% top-notch customer service
■ 61% freebies (such as a gift with purchase)
■ 58% made by a company I trust
■ 45% made by a company I admire
■ 44% scarce/hard to find
■ 38% conscientious/making a difference

All of these factors can help inform our practice decisions — certainly, customer service and freebies are well within our purview — but the third added value, trust, also has proven to be a key factor among consumers. “Made by a company I trust” was satisfying to 68% of prosumers (short for “progressive consumers,” who research the value of their purchases in advance). And when they asked respondents to complete the sentence, “The companies I admire today are…,” “honest/trustworthy” was by far the most popular answer at 49%. In a time of anxiety, trust is extremely important to make people feel secure that they're getting a great buy.

For many, that feeling of security also comes from exhausting all of the possibilities by researching purchases in advance. Prosumers and everyday consumers are spending more time researching purchases online and hunting for the best value. Forget impulse purchases. Think the satisfaction of the hunt, of discovering a real value, of earning a good deal through diligent work (a “task” many people find enjoyable). People are spending less, but they still like to shop, and they take pride in finding a great buy.

Form a Bond of Trust

In his inaugural address, President Obama called for a “new era of responsibility.” He told Americans, “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But the values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.”5

People feel anxiety. In your practice, you can make them feel that they'rein the right place. Fulfill their desire to see you meet challenges with new tools—the latest medical information and treatment options–and old, time-tested values. This isn't as simple as running a local coupon promotion. It's a global values check for your whole practice.

1. You're first. Start by making sure that your own thinking is in sync with the new consumer. Patients want someone they trust. They want a practitioner who readily puts his or her own face on the practice. You're in charge, and you're accountable.

Patients want someone who makes recommendations based on real-life needs, not what's newest or coolest. They're looking for old-fashioned values such as thinking in terms of the interdependent “us” and emphasizing friends and family over income or accomplishments. They don't want to hear about your golf game or your trip to Asia. They want you to live in the real world and give them real-world advice.

2. Talk to staff. Next, make sure your staff shares these values as well. And make sure they understand that top-notch customer service is a good, old-fashioned value, and one that the new consumer expects.

Above all, your staff should be respectful and dedicated to every patient. If a patient has a question, your staff wants to hear it. If there's a problem, your staff wants to solve it. And when patients see doctors and staff interact, they see mutual respect, professionalism and comfort. You trust your employees, and they trust you. Your staff may require some additional training, and you should all speak openly about the type of character you expect the practice to project.

3. Adjust the environment. Together, you and your staff can take the final step: making sure that the physical place embodies your values. Take a keen eye to posters, pamphlets, and even the wall art in the reception, exam and optical areas.

Do high-end financial magazines and a picture of your boat send the right message? On the flip side, what are you saying with a pile of Hollywood gossip rags and posters of fashion models?

Make sure your office reflects the patients in your practice and how you want them to perceive you. Think quality, affordability, practicality, safety and reliability. Use the space to show-case how you serve them and what you care about. For example, show them how you think big picture by “being green” and helping your community.

Be Steadfast

A global economic crisis is enough to make anyone recoil, but resist the urge to go on the defensive. Your best defense is a good offense. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

Don't panic. You might make minor changes to improve efficiencies in your practice, but don't throw the plan out the window. Stay true to the goals you've had all along, and enhance your approach now by focusing on the new consumer.

Don't cut advertising. This is often the first thing to go when businesses tighten their belts, but research shows this is a mistake. Brands that maintain or increase advertising during recessions can sell up to three times more than brands that cut their advertising budgets (Figure 1).6-8

Ryan B. Advertising in a recession: The best defense is a good offense. Value of Advertising Committee, American Association of Advertising Agencies, 1991. Meldrum and Fewsmith. How Advertising in Recession Periods Affects Sales. American Business Press, 1979. McGraw-Hill Research. Laboratory of Advertising Performance Report 5262. New York:McGraw-Hill, 1986.

Don't cut prices. When we're worried about the economy, optometrists run promotions, sales and discounts, but price cuts are hard to reverse once we've created a lower price expectation. Not only does this hurt our bottom line, but as we've discovered, it lowers the consumers' perception of value. It sends a signal that there's something wrong, and it can make your practice seem like the discount practice, rather than the best practice.

So what do you do while you're not panicking? Emphasize the value of you, your practice and your products, and patients will respond.

Create a Value Experience

A value experience is one in which patients perceive value in the whole visit to your practice, as well as in what they buy. It's a contrast to getting cheap eyeglasses and a cheap experience.

To create a value experience, you have to build that bond of trust, and you also must send the message that yours is a top practice. Be sure patients know they aren't getting the cheapest experience; they're getting a lot for their money.

In a value experience, patients are immersed in a customer service culture. They've experienced bad customer service in many offices that are understaffed and hurried and don't respect their time, needs or feelings. In your practice, you should be the shining example of customer service. Teach and lead your staff so you'll all be living this ideal.

Continue that value experience by projecting your professional expertise. People are paying for a highly trained professional, so give them one. Start by asking patients if they're planning on getting new eyeglasses today. If I know this is their goal, then my job is easier (and I don't talk them out of it). Once you've asked questions about the patient's needs and lifestyle, take a medical approach to your recommendations. You're accustomed to doing this when it comes to eye disease and medications, so extend that authority to recommending vision correction.

Use your “doctor power.” Say, “I recommend that we change your eyeglasses,” and then explain how the change will help their vision or enhance their lifestyle. Some optometrists want to delegate eyeglass discussions to staff, but it's part of our duty to discuss prescription changes, progressives, lens changes and coatings in the exam room.

When you make a medical recommendation for vision correction, you're giving patients the guidance they want and lending strength to the decision to purchase the most appropriate option. In this context, promoting brand names isn't just acceptable — it's preferable. Offer innovative products and show patients how these technologies aren't just new, they're also better. Explain how new technology solves problems and enhances lives. This is real value. Patients will pay more for an advanced product if it represents a genuine improvement.

You're completing the consumer's search for quality and durability. You're not the doctor who sells the cheap stuff, because inferior products aren't really a bargain.

With the value experience, patients should leave feeling that they've been treated well, had a positive experience and made a smart, well-informed purchase. They trust your practice and feel secure that you and your staff are there for future questions or needs. They know that they received a good value for their money. And they feel a sense of discovery and enthusiasm because they've been to a special or noteworthy place, which means they're more likely to recommend your practice to family and friends.

Make It OK — Even Fun — to Shop

People who spent previous years running up credit cards are paying them down. They have fewer opportunities to shop. When it's time to spend money, they want to enjoy it, not cringe with every dollar that leaves their pockets.

Your patients won't buy a pair of eyeglasses for every outfit. But armed with your authoritative medical recommendation and reliable information about the quality of a product, consumers feel like they have “permission” to spend money. They feel like they're making the smartest choice, not the cheapest choice, and any savings that they receive fit their new values. They're being thrifty in a smart way because they want to shop smart, not saving money at all costs because they have to.

Invest wisely in your optical area to ensure that the shopping experience is enjoyable for patients. After all, patients decide quickly after the exam if they'll buy from you or go elsewhere. They may decide at a glance to go to the mall. Make sure your optical area has a great look, an inventory of 600 to 800 frames, and plenty of hip styles that frame vendors say are selling well. Stock plenty of sample lenses and lens demo devices, such as frames with a Transitions lens in one eye, to help your staff sell various lens options. Patients who may be feeling the effects of belt-tightening in other areas of their lives should feel like when it comes to eyeglasses, they can still get the best and look stylish.

Finally, you can maintain that value experience and positive sense of discovery after patients walk out the door. Direct them to your website — a cutting edge, interactive space where they can learn interesting things about the practice, order contacts, make appointments, complete surveys and learn about promotions. Have them visit the website to sign up for email news, where you promote your community activities, promotions, changes at the practice, staff accomplishments and new products and services. This makes patients feel like insiders and helps them stay involved in your practice. If they continue to feel that bond of trust and shared values, they'll continue to schedule exams and purchase new vision correction from you for years to come. nOD

REFERENCES

  1. Jacobe D. Gallup Economic Weekly: Confidence Falls in Late January. Available at: gallup.com/poll/125465/Gallup-Economic-Weekly-Confidence-Falls-Late-January.aspx
  2. Economic Situation Survey by Vision Watch, April 2009.
  3. Euro RSCG. Global Consumer Survey and Semiotics Analysis Reveal that Recession Consumers Prioritize Quality and Service Over Slashed Prices. Available at: europress.eurorscg.com/files/How_consumers_Define_Value_2009.pdf
  4. Msnbc.com News Services. Holiday sales seen worst in 38 years. Available at: msnbc.msn.com/id/28434929/ns/business-consumer_news/
  5. The White House Blog. President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address. Available at: whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/
  6. Ryan B. Advertising in a recession: The best defense is a good offense. Value of Advertising Committee, American Association of Advertising Agencies, 1991.
  7. Meldrum and Fewsmith. How Advertising in Recession Periods Affects Sales. American Business Press, 1979.
  8. McGraw-Hill Research. Laboratory of Advertising Performance Report 5262. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.
Dr. Gailmard is in group private practice in Munster, Ind. He is president of Gailmard Consulting. E-mail him at neil@gailmard.com.


Optometric Management, Issue: April 2010