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A focus group of eye care consumers was recently held by a major company in
the ophthalmic industry. Focus groups are a great way to learn about the
opinions and perceptions of the customers in any business. They need not be a
strategy used only by large corporations; independent private practices can
benefit from them as well. This focus group worked with patients who had
recently seen an eye care practitioner in various modes of practice.
The competitive advantage of chains
Several questions asked of the group revolved around perceived differences
between commercial retail forms of practice vs. independent private practice.
While both types of practice had some traits that were identified as preferred
or superior to the other, the following factors were cited as reasons why
consumers chose chain optical stores over private doctors’ offices.
Marketing and merchandising
These factors would be considered competitive advantages in the business
world, or in other words, reasons why a typical customer would choose one
company over another. It should be noted that these are only the perceptions of
the consumers and may not actually be fact. But really, isn’t consumer
perception all that matters when it comes down to marketing? After all, it
doesn’t matter if your office can argue that it’s more convenient than a
super-optical if the public doesn’t know it. Since the consumer makes the
decision about where to buy, his perception is reality.
Those are some pretty important features when you consider a consumer’s choice
of eye care practitioners, don’t you think? Might a private doctor lose some
patients to a provider that is deemed better in those areas? I certainly think
An exercise in competitive analysis
Here is an exercise for you. In which of the five categories above could a
private eye care practice perform equal to or better than a typical chain
optical store, if it really wanted to? My answer is all of them except the last
one. Let’s look at each category and consider what it means and how private
docs could compete.
Marketing and merchandising. It may be smart for private docs to pursue
different marketing strategies than chains, but there is nothing that says a
private doctor can’t have an optical department that looks like it is high
fashion and high tech. In my experience, however, most docs don’t invest
enough in optical display furnishings and don’t seek talented people who
have a flair for decorating and fashion. Many opticals look outdated and
anything but chic! Why would smart consumers choose an optical like that?
Product selection. I take this to mean a large frame inventory with
designer brand names. This category may also include lens options that are
well communicated. Consumers like to feel like they have choices. They
want to feel like they are spending their money in the best place possible.
Many private ODs make their optical dispensaries too small and maintain
small inventories with the goal of keeping expenses low. If just a couple
patients per month walk with their Rx because they feel that they could find
better choices at the mall, it is a false economy.
Convenience. This could mean different things to different people – but
offering evening and Saturday office hours is likely one aspect. Another
may be easy parking and great service. Anything that makes it easy for the
consumer. Many private doctors don’t want to work evenings and Saturdays,
but don’t make the mistake of identifying your whole practice operation with
you. Well managed practices can operate fine without the owner being
present. You can hire opticians and doctors to keep the office open if you
really want to compete.
Efficiency. This could mean fast service, including quick turnaround on
eyeglass and contact lens orders. This is another example of doctors who
don’t seem to want to compete. If they wanted to have an on-site optical
lab, service could be improved. And it is not very expensive to stock
multipacks in one or two brands of contact lenses, so everything does not
have to be ordered for each patient and direct-shipped. Fast, efficient eye
exams and deliveries of glasses count too, along with staying on time for
Price. Finally, a category that I don’t recommend private docs try to
compete in. In reality, some optical chains offer low prices and some
don’t, but the perception of low price is generally there. But patients
will happily pay high fees at a private doctor’s office if they get great
service. Higher fees can actually be a positive factor in some circles,
because people equate the quality of care with the fee. In my experience,
most ODs vastly undercharge for the services they provide. I realize that
you can’t control the fees paid by vision plans, but participating with them
is a business decision that you should re-evaluate on a regular basis. As
long as you determine that it’s in your best interest to participate with a
vision plan, all you can do is practice as efficiently as possible. But
most practices have a private pay segment as well, and I find that the fees
for that group are woefully low. Why not set them where your medical eye
care fees are? If that were the case, all complete eye exams could then be
the same fee.
People want the personal touch and the medical expertise they perceive as
better with private doctors, but they don’t want to give up the features they
have come to love in upscale retail stores. Why not provide both?
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.