Sometimes your world changes. Things happen that you don’t account for. Whether it’s a change in the business landscape, or your parents dying horrifically in an ill-fated sea voyage – things can go from ‘ok’ to ‘oh no’ quickly. Being able to adapt to new situations is necessary in both business and everyday life. As many have no doubt seen, the eyewear industry has changed drastically over the past few years. Between big-box stores, insurance, and online sales, there are more ways than ever for people to get their eyewear.
Part of being able to be successful is seeing that the landscape is changing, and doing something about it to fix it. If you continue about your day-to-day trying to ignore it, you’re just going to end up with your potential customers going elsewhere. The solution to taking on these new business challenges isn’t running away. If you run off and isolate yourself (in an ice castle, or wherever), then all you do is compound your problems.
Independents Are Better Than Corporate
And I’m sure that a lot of you agree, as that’s one of the things that you hope your patients are going to do every time you give them a copy of their prescription. You’d really, really love it if they decided to support their local independent optical shop (you) instead of going somewhere else (online, big box, or really anywhere else). Which only makes sense, really. So if we want them to support independents – why is it okay for you to support large companies (frames, labs, lenses, etc.) and not independents? Isn’t it basically the same thing? I mean, we already know most of these giants are online and actively selling against you….so why would you want to sell their products in your store? Doesn’t that just make it all the easier for your customer to internet shop while they use your store to ‘try things on’?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s plenty of products that you do well with that come from large companies – they’re large for a reason, after all. My point is that isn’t it in your self-interest to not have part of your sales fund someone that is basically your competition? I’ve heard countless times from people that have customers search for frames in their shop, and find the same frame online lower than wholesale cost. That doesn’t really sound like a company that has the best interest of their customers at heart.
Do You Want to Bill Insurance?
It doesn’t have to be insurance. I have trouble wrapping my head around the concept of vision insurance. It seems that very few subscribers know what their plan actually covers. It’s good for them that you know every single detail of their plan, what it covers, and what their responsibility is. Oh, you don’t know that? Can’t you just look it up? What do you mean I need to know who my insurance company is? ….and that’s just the start. But I’m also sure that’s a conversation you’ve had many times, and would gladly never have again if you can avoid it. You also know that anything that isn’t covered is going to be your fault. Sometimes you can even end up owing money to the insurance company for a given job, which I just find baffling. You go through all of that pain and suffering, and they get the privilege of paying for it?
The double-edged sword here is that a lot of people think you NEED the insurances to get patients in the door. I think the truth of that depends on what kind of customer that you’re looking for. If you enjoy the customers that are the “I just want what is covered by the insurance AND NOTHING MORE,” then yes, insurances are probably great. But you don’t really make money doing that. I assume that you’d like to do that every once in a while. Accepting insurances means that people with those insurances are more likely to come in for an exam. It also means that they are more likely to want to stay within whatever budget they need to so they don’t have to pay anything. They assume that the insurance is going to cover ‘what they need’, and that any more than that isn’t really necessary. If the customers don’t come in with the expectation of using insurance, you get more leeway in discussing frame and lens options for them.
I haven’t see anyone regret discontinuing their relationship with an insurance carrier. I may be wrong, of course, and maybe I don’t hear about them because they went out of business so aren’t around to lament their poor choice of judgement? We may never know, but what I do know is that “I really love working with vision insurance plans” is a sentence that nobody’s ever before said in a serious manner.
This, of course, hasn’t even addressed that the insurance companies actively solicit their subscribers for their optical frame business online. Some go so far as to email them as soon as they see the subscriber had an eye exam. Usually with an offer to “get more from their benefits” by buying their eyewear from the insurance companies online store. How are you supposed to do anything about that? And what real benefit do you get out of supporting a company that is actively enticing their customers to NOT buy things from you, and to buy from them instead?
Let Them Go (Online)
Online sales. You know you aren’t going to stop it. No matter how much you educate, inform, or help, you’re going to have patients that are going to be taking their Rx and walking out the door. Today’s world has given most of us a very unhealthy obsession with the click-buy lifestyle, assuming it’s a ‘better deal’, regardless of whether or not it actually is. You know as well as I do that the online eyewear doesn’t come with the services that an optical shop can provide. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell that to a customer as they’re about to walk out the door. If you try to stop them, they are just going to assume that you’re like a used-car salesman trying to keep them from walking off the lot. They’ve already decided that they’re going to buy online, and there’s usually not much you can do to stop them at that point. Even the ones that aren’t internet savvy have a child, cousin, or someone else that can ‘get them on the computer’ for them. So it’s probably about time we stopped pretending that it doesn’t exist. What we need to focus on is service, as that’s the value that an optical shop provides. And remember, your time is worth something – it shouldn’t be free.
What I’m referring to here is the inevitable after-the-fact visits you get from patients that bought online. Either they can’t see, don’t fit right, or something else. Regardless of the problem, it’s you that has to deal with it. The last thing you want to do is feel obligated to ‘help them out’ because they have a problem. Help them, by all means, but remember it’s your time and skill that they are coming for, so it needs to be compensated. One way of dealing with this is that you can offer a ‘membership’ or ‘service plan’ for eyewear that people buy elsewhere. You can spell out flat fees for some things – such as adjustment, PDs, nose pad replacements, or whatever else. Then give them an option for a yearly plan that entitles them to everything they need to buy eyewear online – PD, adjustments, Rx check of the new lenses that came in.
I’m not saying that everyone is going to go online, or that you should encourage it – we just all know that it’s going to happen with some people. Even if they do it just once to ‘try it’, many people will go that way. This is simply a way of managing it without causing a problem later down the line. Often times people will assume that because they got their prescription from you that when someone else makes a pair of glasses, it becomes your responsibility. For some reason. By letting the patient know ahead of time, “If you choose to go online to get glasses, here’s some service plans we offer in case you have any issues,” you set the expectation ahead of time that if they come back with a problem, they’re going to be expected to pay for it. This is usually better than having them standing in your office with their $7 special pair of lenses they can’t see out of demanding that you fix it.
An Open Door
The point of this – if I can say something crazy – is that, ultimately, nobody has your best interests at heart except you. Your best bet is finding partners that aren’t also your direct competition. Those partners actually have an interest in your business succeeding, so why would you not want a relationship with someone that wants you to do well? The market is changing, and is a much different world than it was five or ten years ago. Another few years and it will invariably change again. The question is whether you are going to walk through the open door of change, or if you’re content sitting still when other business around you improve. I don’t know about you, but competition never bothered me, anyway.
– W. Disney