For those of you unfamiliar with Game of Thrones, allow me to give a very brief summary of the plot-line, as I feel it is startlingly similar to what’s going on in the optical industry at present. Picture it: you have one extremely wealthy and powerful family (or company) that is seeking to rule everyone else. In their quest for that, any competing families are either bought off, assimilated into their own, or outright destroyed.
The days get shorter, and there’s becoming less and less to do each day. As the chill sets in, there’s fewer and fewer people still around, and it can almost seem like there’s nobody left. Anyone that there was has closed up shop and moved to a warmer climate. I’m not referring to the season specifically, however. I am more referring to the optical industry as a whole. Life has been good up to this point, summer has been long and plentiful.
But, as with seasons, the business climate we are in changes as well. We need to be able to see the changes that are in the wind, and see what we can do to prepare ourselves. All of the tell-tale signs are there. Big business is consolidating. Independents are drying up. The rise of technologies and online sales. Make no mistake, the seasons are changing, and winter is coming.
A Stark Difference
Trying to make it as an independent anything can be difficult. As time moves on, the big get bigger, and it becomes more difficult for anyone new to enter into their space and actually be successful. If you’re lucky, you can work your way in and eek out a living. If you’re too much of a troublemaker though, and don’t play nice, then they can get very nasty very quickly and do whatever they can to take your customer base away from you. In order to stop that, it’s imperative to focus on what makes you special, in a business sense.
Someone that walks into an independent shop should (hopefully) have a very different buying experience than if they walk into a chain store, and you want them to remember that difference. It’s what sets you apart, and keeps them coming back. If your customers don’t see you as a better alternative, what keeps them coming back? Being able to highlight your differences and benefits is what helps keep small independents thriving.
Always Pay Your Debts
Knowing your stuff is one thing when it comes to eyes and eyewear, but when it comes to being successful you need to consider your business as well. Part of the problem you can run into is that you don’t necessarily have ‘business skills’ – and that’s not your fault. Everyone has their own strengths, and just because you’re a great doctor or great optician doesn’t mean you are great at running a business. The unfortunate part of being an entrepreneur, whether it’s in this field or others, is that you usually end up having to do everything. To be more successful, you need to be able to identify what you are good at and what you need help with. That way you can focus on adding the most value possible to your business.
Part of this is also building relationships with your vendors, especially independent ones. If you can establish a good track record with them, then they will start to trust you. They trust you because you do what you say you will (like paying on time). This makes it easier to negotiate with them if you need special terms – maybe you got a big deal or contract, or want to do a trunk show or sale. Independent companies that you’ve built a relationship with are far more likely to work with you than large corporations that have strict rules to which they must adhere.
When You Play the Game of Labs…
You Win or You Die
The sheer number of independent labs that have been gobbled up or closed in the last few months alone seems almost ridiculous. Earlier this year, another magazine ran their yearly “Top 20 Independent Labs”. This year, however, they couldn’t even come up with that many, as it only had 18, one of which was already corporate owned, so that left us with 17 left. By the time you’re reading this, it could be even fewer than that.
You may not generally care about labs, of course, and that’s fine. But it’s going to affect you sooner or later. As labs disappear, so do your options and choice. When you only have one company running a majority of labs, don’t be surprised when you have to settle for a level of service that you’d never put up with before.
Part of this isn’t just independents ‘going out of business’, but is more often the larger corporations buying up labs they think are going to ‘expand their territory’. Some of the warning signs you, as the customer of an independent, should look out for is the products they sell. If they suddenly add a big name lens, maybe they’re looking to sell out?
A Lens Has No Name
Does your patient really care what lens they get? Their main concern is being able to get a lens that works well, and is affordable – and not even necessarily in that order. Most of them (especially if they haven’t worn a progressive before) don’t have the slightest clue about brands, and really only learn about them if you tell them. There’s really three different options here – someone else’s brand, your own brand, or no brand.
There are pros and cons for each of these, which are addressed in depth elsewhere in this issue. Sufficed to say, even with no name, the job can still get done very effectively. Not only that, the usual cost-savings for these lenses can make it so that you might be able to make a second-pair sale when otherwise the customer didn’t have the budget to buy two.
The Insurers Send Their Regards
“I really love working with vision insurance companies”, said no one ever. I have yet to hear from anyone – whether it is consumer or eye care professional – about how much easier insurance makes things for them. Yet plenty of places still accept multiple different vision insurance plans. I’ve heard of places ditching insurances and still doing well; I have yet to hear about a place ditching them and then later regretting it.
Keep in mind, these are the same vision insurance companies that are actively trying to cut you out of the picture. You are literally doing business with someone that wants to take your customers. And many people still do it happily. These companies actively market to their subscribers that their insurance ‘does more’ or ‘goes further’ if they order eyewear online through the insurers own site. Yet they are still gladly helped by countless optical shops across the country.
Obviously, a lot of how useful insurance is to you, as a business, depends quite a bit on the types of customers that you see, and how likely they are to come in if you don’t handle their insurance. Are they going to go somewhere else? Maybe you can show them how they can still save money and get great value, without even needing to have their vision insurance. This is, of course, keeping the idea of their ‘vision plan’ and their ‘medical insurance’ separate, which I’m sure is a daily battle you still have with customers that the two are, indeed, separate.
You Know Nothing
When you’re out manning the wall (or optical shop, whichever) by yourself, you aren’t really focused on all of the politics that are going on behind you. You have more important thing to do, like taking care of your customers, billing, covering shifts, and a whole plethora of other things. Even dealing with most of those things, there are plenty of topics that you may not know enough (or anything) about. When you’re a smaller independent business, it can be hard to keep up with employment law, records requirements, and everything else.
This can also happen with the vendors that you deal with. One day you could be supporting an independent that you buy from, then suddenly you find out they were acquired by a Big Optical company. The same Big Optical that is actively trying to steal your customers. And then you find out they were actually acquired six months ago, and you just now found out about it. So you’ve been supporting your competition without even knowing it.
The Winds of Winter
So, as we’ve seen, independents in this industry are in for some dark times ahead. Newer technology and ways of competing mean we need to adapt how we do business and take it to the ‘next level’. Gone are the carefree days of sitting back and waiting for the customers to come to us.
Now eyewear sales are so pervasive, they don’t have to leave their house, or they can just stop in to the optical department after doing their grocery shopping. This rise in convenience for the average consumer has to be countered by you somehow. Do they have a reason to come to you, instead of getting their eyewear somewhere that’s more convenient? Do you give a better service? Better products?
While you may know that, how does your customer know that? They don’t spend all day working with eyewear, or even know enough to be able to compare what is good and what is junk. This isn’t your traditional battle, you have to outsmart and outplay them. Only then can you win the game.
– David Benioff and D.B. Weiss