Article Date: 9/1/2010

Rejuvenate Your Optical Dispensary
optical

Rejuvenate Your Optical Dispensary

Use these five tips to push your practice's biggest profit center to the next level

Tom Wilk, O.D., Calgary, Alberta

When was the last time you personally evaluated your optical dispensary's ability to attract patients? If you're like most O.D.s it's been a long time, as your daily routine has been consumed by patient care activities. You may be lucky enough to have an office manager with some talent and ability in the dispensary, and day-to-day operational tasks can and should be delegated to such an individual. But, as CEO of your practice you need to provide the vision and framework for a successful operation. Considering the optical area is usually an optometric practice's single largest revenue generator, it pays to make the effort to maximize its potential.

So, take a day or two away from seeing patients, photograph your optical displays, make a trip to your local mall — with pen and small pad in hand — and compare your dispensary's lighting, background colors and display techniques with those of other optical stores. Also, visit other retailers (jewelry and art, for example) to learn about the latest trends in effective display techniques. After this experiment, more than likely you'll notice that your optical dispensary needs a face lift.

As a practitioner who recently undertook this task, here are five tips I can offer that should facilitate this process and maximize your success.

Mirror backgrounds absorb light, and, therefore, wash out the fine details of frames.

1. Listen to your patients

Obviously, a return on investment should be the primary goal of an optical dispensary redesign — selling more frames to more people, in other words. But how, specifically, can you achieve this goal? You may decide to add space to your optical, change its color scheme or focus on a different display format. First, I suggest you talk to the people whose opinions matter most — your patients. The better you are at meeting your patients' specific wants and needs, the more that will be reflected in your optical sales. Conduct a small focus group (a simple phone interview works well) comprised of patients who purchased from you as well as those who did not. (The amount of patients in your focus group depends on the scope of the market. In other words, is your practice targeting patients of all ages and demographics or just a narrow segment of the population?) Input from both groups is important to give you a balanced perspective on what needs work. Ask questions about your patients' eyeglass purchase experience. For instance, how did they feel about your frame selection (number and variety of styles offered), the ease of finding what they were looking for, the quality of lighting and quantity of mirrors, and did they feel crowded or comfortable moving around? Successful businesses know their best customers thoroughly and spend most of their energies optimizing the buying experience of their target market.

Remember: The background should be a very light, neutral color, free of detail. You want your frames to "pop."

2. Determine frame amount

The space of your optical dispensary is contingent on the amount of frames you choose to display. The specific number of frames you should have in inventory depends on the size of your practice — both in terms of square footage and patient base. For small or start-up practices (under $500,000 gross revenue and 2,000 square feet or less), plan on displaying 600 to 800 frames, and for large practices, aim for a minimum of 1,000 frames. To determine your inventory, analyze your current yearly frame turnover to get a feel for how your current inventory is moving. To get this number, divide the total number of frames you sold through the past 12 months by the number of frames you currently have in inventory. A frame turnover of three or higher is desirable, but if yours is less than that, that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't increase your inventory. Refer to the data you received from your focus group. Did your patients mention your eyeglass selection as a plus or a minus? Simply making an investment in your inventory size can stimulate more interest in your optical products and lead to a significant increase in sales. If you decide to add more frames to your inventory, you may also need to increase the space allotted for your optical area. You may want to consider re-allocating another area of the office or, if available, adding to your entire square footage.

3. Rethink your frame arrangement

Review the data you collected from your focus group, and think about how your product displays are arranged. This should be optimized for your patient's benefit and not to make your staff's (or worse, your frame reps') lives easier. An eyewear purchase can be one of the most stressful purchases one can make. Ask yourself whether your dispensary design is perpetuating this problem or truly contributing to a pleasant buying experience for your patients. To make the experience pleasant, group your frames by category in a way that makes the most sense to your patients. Some grouping options: brand, price point, lifestyle (safety, sports, etc.) or age. Separate feature cabinetry for sunglasses or high-end frames may also be effective. This attention to detail sends a message that you care just as much about providing patients with the ability to choose the eyewear that best meets their needs, as you do about their eye health. This will likely attract more people into your optical area. One of the best things you can hear from a patient is that he's already chosen his glasses, before the exam has even started.

4. Conceptualize your design

Now, refer back to your notes from your mall trip to come up with a few ideas on display techniques. Don't limit yourself to frame bars in mass displays just because everyone else is doing that. Perhaps you liked a display cabinet you saw at a jewelry store. Or, maybe that rubber rock wall you saw at that sporting goods store has inspired you to use a rock wall theme to display your sports eyewear. Write every idea, regardless of how outlandish or unrealistic you think it is. The fact is, you don't really know whether something is feasible until you do some research. This is where outside help can be invaluable (see next tip).

5. Work with a professional

Very few of us are as proficient in design as we are in optometry. Therefore, I suggest you consult a professional who has experience in commercial retail design, vs. one who specializes solely in office interiors, to help bring your ideas to reality. The reason: Frames are difficult to display well due to their subtle details, colors, shapes and angles. As a result, you want to work with someone who's aware of this and can provide you with professional advice to best showcase your optical products. (Incidentally, these folks can help you with color choice as well — something not covered in this article.) Ideally, the designer you choose should have experience in an optical setting, as this helps immensely with the unique challenges involved in dispensing, such as patient flow and product organization.

To find such a designer, ask your frame company representatives. These folks have a good idea of which practices are accomplishing the goals required of a productive dispensary. Another option: Contact your state optometric association. (Editor's Note: You may also want to visit AOAConnect (connect.aoa.org) or odwire.org to find a reputable designer.) After you've obtained a few recommendations, interview these prospects, request a work portfolio, and ask for references. You want to know whether the job was completed on time, within budget and whether the reference is happy with the results. Although designers will provide you with the names of only their "happy" clients, I've found that most clients are quite candid. Your designer should have the ability to help you develop your ideas into something unique, yet functional that meets your budgetary guidelines. (See "Design Rules of Thumb," below.)

Whether you decide to completely overhaul your optical, add space, change its color or use a different frame display format, realize the enthusiasm you generate with a modern, redesigned optical is well worth the effort. After all, it results in increased profitability and a more powerful identity for your practice as the best place for eye care and eyewear in your community. OM

Design Rules of Thumb
However you decide to set up your optical dispensary, pay attention to the following rules of thumb:
Focus on flow. Make sure your optical dispensary mirrors are in areas where patients won't have to step aside to allow for the passage of others. Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror with a new frame and trying to decide whether it's the right choice while constantly hearing, "Excuse me," or "Can I just squeeze by for a second?" This has the potential to become aggravating enough to prompt a patient to get their eyewear elsewhere. Arrange small mirrors within the displays themselves, but also make sure to provide full-length mirrors as well. This helps patients feel more confident with their eyewear selection by observing how it integrates with their overall style.
Another way to avoid traffic jams and congestion: Have no more than two dispensing tables for inventories of 500 frames or less and four to six for larger ones. Each table should have storage for a pupilometer, ruler, marking pens, calculator and product literature so your staff doesn't have to go searching for anything once they're seated. These tables usually need to be custom made due to their small width (e.g. when your optician is seated with a patient across from her, the reach shouldn't be excessive when manipulating frames or taking measurements). Also, keep in mind you'll need space for computers, monitors and keyboard trays for each dispensing station. Consider investing in wireless laptops for your dispensary, as staff can bring them to the dispensing tables when needed so they keep your dispensary clear of clutter.
Keep your background in the back. Regardless of the overall color scheme of your dispensary, pay close attention to the surface against which your frames are displayed. The background should make your frames stand out, or "pop" and should be a very light, neutral color, free of detail that may distract your patients from the frames. White is a good choice for this. Backgrounds that contain distracting detail include wood or grainy textures and mirror backdrops — the latter of which absorbs light and, therefore, wash out fine detail.
Deep six deep shelving units. If you decide to use shelving units to display your frames, they should have enough depth for about three rows of frames when laid flat. Anything larger tends to result in wasted space and risks product being pushed toward the back of the shelves where it can't be seen. Also, make use of vertical risers on the shelving units to increase visibility of frames and enable an increased number to be shown per square foot. (See www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQ3rpLsH4Hg.)
Light the way. Lighting is such a crucial element to the success of your optical dispensary that you may want to consult a lighting expert. (Your designer should be able to provide a resource for you.) The lighting choice you make is highly dependent on your dispensary space, ceiling heights, colors and proximity to windows. In general, though, avoid backlighting, as it shadows color, and overhead lighting, which causes glare. Remember: Your frames are the star attraction. You don't want anything to distract patients elsewhere. My suggestion: Incorporate light fixtures that are as close as possible to your frames, yet hidden from view. You can accomplish this with recessed lighting fixtures in both the sides and tops of your cabinetry. Once you have your frame illumination solved, you'll also need some ambient lighting so your patients can see themselves trying on your frames. Track lighting works well for this purpose. Use compact fluorescent or metal halide fixtures. These cost more initially, but are more efficient in the long run due to their low power consumption. Also, they emit less heat than Halogen lighting, thereby contributing to a more comfortable environment for your patients.

Dr. Wilk owns and operates a two-location practice in Calgary, Alberta. E-mail him at wilkoptometry@shaw.ca, or send comments to optometric management@gmail.com.


Optometric Management, Issue: September 2010