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I'm definitely seeing a trend that more of my patients are taking their contact lens prescription to buy the products online. Oh, don't get me wrong, we have seen this for many years just like most practices, but in the past few months the percentage of patients buying online or elsewhere is increasing. I'm hearing the same from many colleagues and industry sources.
What to do
Some eye care professionals are thinking of throwing in the towel and may simply stop selling contact lenses. I'm not about to do that. While we always release the contact lens Rx to every patient, there are still large numbers of patients who want to buy the products from my practice and I can still earn a nice profit by selling them. However, I do think it's time to change our strategic approach for selling contact lens materials.
We've heard it before but it is really important to shift more of your total contact lens fee away from the materials and into the services. The professional fitting and eye health aspect of your care is very valuable and you must charge appropriately for it. As you do this, your profit margin remains intact even if you do not sell as many lenses as you used to.
Recognize that maintaining a positive relationship with the patient is far more important than the sale of the product. You can remain the patient's eye care provider even if he buys lenses elsewhere, and that is what matters most.
Steps to keep contact lens sales in your practice
First and foremost, make sure your practice is top-notch from a customer service aspect. Loyalty and trust are always key factors in your patients' decision making process. Be sure patients feel like they want to buy their contact lenses from you... they would rather buy them from you. Once you have that you have won more than half the battle. Reread tip #55 on enthusiastic patients.
Make an effort to sell an annual supply. I understand that you and your staff don't want to seem pushy, but there is still a lot you can do to increase the number of patients who purchase a full year's supply at once. And when you do that, there is far less opportunity for people to shop online. Read on for ways to increase annual sales, but start by having staff members bring it up. Instead of asking “How many boxes do you want?” just try asking, “Do you want us to order your annual supply?”
Take advantage of manufacturer's rebates. They offer a great incentive to purchase an annual supply, they are no cost to you, and they often provide an exclusive benefit for patients of independent eye care providers.
Provide a small discount when a full year supply is purchased at once, in addition to the rebate.
Maintain a sellable inventory of your most used brand. It's really not that expensive (do the math and you'll see) and it's very convenient for patients who are in your office for their annual exam and your staff can just hand them their lenses. It is also convenient when a patient runs out of lenses. Instead of ordering online and waiting days or paying extra for overnight shipping, he can simply stop in at your office and get the product in person, today. Added bonus: you can often cut your cost by buying in bulk.
A new look at material prices
To effectively compete online, I'm going to sharpen my pencil and lower some product prices for the first time in a long time. I will raise the professional contact lens fees to compensate, but the products are easily comparable and I'm feeling a need to be more competitive in that arena. I do not need to make my contact lens prices the lowest of all retailers, but I can set prices to be close to or below some of the large online firms. Price is not the only factor that patients will look at; we still offer some strong advantages for buying the product because we are the patient's eye doctor. See below for some more benefits you can promote.
E-commerce on your own practice website
There was a time when I was not so sure I wanted to provide online contact lens ordering on my practice website. We enjoyed a high percentage of our patients buying their products from my practice in the traditional manner at the time of their eye exam and that suited me just fine. However, we have reached the tipping point where it now makes more sense for me jump in and compete with e-commerce.
There are many contact lens distributors and website developers that offer easy, low cost, plug-in methods of offering e-commerce on your own website. These links to a generic site are ready to go, with a full list of contact lens brands and you can set your own price per box. There is a familiar shopping cart and the consumer registers and pays by credit card. The patient perceives he is buying directly from your website. Your practice receives the deposits, less a service charge.
We tell every contact lens patient we see that we now offer contact reordering on our website and our prices are very competitive. We hand them a special business card that provides the address of our website along with some exclusive benefits that are only available to patients who buy their lenses from our practice in person or online:
Competitive prices with other online sources.
An eye care expert you know and trust on the phone if you have a question or problem.
Free trial lenses when needed.
Easy lens exchanges if a lens does not feel right or if the prescription changes.
Free shipping in certain quantities.
In between exams, if a patient asks if he can have a copy of his contact lens prescription, we always say yes, but we remind him to check our website as well and we attach our Internet business card to the Rx.
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.