The Changing Face of the ECP

By Liz Martinez, ABOC, NCLC
Many optical laboratories seem to get caught in a downward spiral of decreasing business, complaining about loss of revenue, lack of initiative to change business practices, complaining about loss of revenue, decreasing business, complaining about loss of revenue, and so forth, ad nauseam.

While their complaints are valid, their business approaches are not. Human nature is, of course, to want things to remain the same. So it’s understandable that some labs still depend on a business strategy that has become stagnant. However, in order to be successful in today’s changing marketplace, labs must pay attention to the changing face of the eye care practitioner.

OUT WITH THE OLD...

The makeup of the United States population has been changing steadily. America is “browning” — or becoming darker — as more African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Middle Easterners settle down here and have families. In the optical industry, that means that labs have an extraordinary opportunity to cash in on this phenomenon — providing they recognize their good fortune and act on it accordingly.

Consider the fact that while 63 percent of optometry students enrolled during the 2005 - 2006 school year were Caucasian, 23 percent were Asian, 5 percent Hispanic and 4 percent African-American. But according to the Association of School and Colleges of Optometry, a Minority Faculty Development Leadership Summit was held last year by the Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies in order to promote the training, recruiting and retention of minority faculty members in optometry and other health professional schools. This increase will make optometry a more inviting profession for ethnic minorities, thus increasing the number of minority ODs in the years to come.

The call for more minority optometrists is coming from the patients themselves, too. A study published in the journal Ethnicity and Disease found that African-American and Spanish-speaking Latino men prefer to consult with doctors of the same race or ethnicity.

When we consider that almost 24 percent more female optometry students graduated in 2005 than did male students — and that number is growing — it becomes clear that the face of today’s eye care practitioner is no longer that of a Caucasian male. Instead, young, non-white, and female ECPs are becoming the norm.

REACHING THE NON-TRADITIONAL PRACTITIONER

Anyone who has ever complained about that “noise” the younger generation listens to that’s supposed to be music, or the clothes they wear that look ridiculous, knows that one size does not fit all when it comes to marketing and product appeal. It should be no surprise then that what appeals to the distinguished silver-haired optometrist down the road may not have the same draw for a twenty-something, newly graduated female OD.

Labs have been notoriously slow to recognize this fact, but those who have adjusted their marketing strategies are finding that doing so pays off. Bob Kathe, president of Aspen Optical in Mesa, Ariz., says his lab reaches out to its Spanish-speaking clientele. “We use any Spanish-language promotional material we can get our hands on,” he says. “We distribute any bilingual literature we can get for the patient’s use, such as the OLA’s lens menu or POP materials about new lenses or materials.”

Brien Bieker, owner of RGV Optical Lab in McAllen, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border, also applies this strategy. “About 50 percent of the doctors in this area want Spanish-language literature on lens options and materials,” he reported.

Aside from the language issue, there is the generation gap to consider. Young optometrists are products of the Nintendo age, and technology is their second language. Tim Steffey, sales and marketing manager for Sunstar Optical in Salt Lake City, Utah, takes full advantage of the Internet to reach his customers.

“We e-mail our accounts with new product information,” he says. “We also take orders over the Internet, which is beneficial for both our customers and us.” According to Steffey, Internet orders eliminate paperwork and the time it takes to prepare it. It also eliminates mistakes, such as missing PDs or seg heights, which would not have been caught until later with a faxed order. “We don’t have to make phone calls to get a PD,” he explains. “If it’s not entered, the system will flag it for the customer and won’t allow the order to go through until it’s corrected.”

He finds that his clients who are new OD graduates are especially happy with Sunstar’s Internet use. “The younger ODs are definitely into the computer,” Steffey says. “Even some older ECPs are asking us to come to their offices and help them get set up on our system.”

But not all labs are so modern. Jenifer Ambler, an optometrist in Brattleboro, Vt., is frustrated with her lab’s 20th-century approach. “I’d love to be able to e-mail my orders directly from my practice software,” she says. “As it stands, I have to rewrite everything a second time for the lab.”

Bieker of RGV Optical says that his lab has tried introducing Internet ordering, but it hasn’t taken off. “There aren’t a lot of cable or DSL lines in this area,” he explains. “Most people have dial-up service, so it’s actually more expedient for them to fax their orders or call them in.”

But some labs, like Tallahassee Optics Inc. in Havana, Fla., simply don’t see the need to introduce electronic communication. “Primarily, everything’s by phone,” says co-owner Kelly Holt. “We don’t have a Web site. We just receive orders via fax, and we call if we need to suggest something different for a particular job,” she adds.

A WOMAN IS NOT A MAN

The influx of female optometrists have caused some labs to alter their sales and marketing approaches based on gender, while others remain resistant. Many labs that offer incentives, for example, stick with the tried-and-true golf outings or other items that might not appeal to women as much as to men. What if labs offered a spa day as an incentive instead? “I’d love that!” Dr. Ambler says.

Kathe of Aspen Optical says that he finds female practitioners to be more open to what his lab is offering. “They’re more apt to listen when you go in with new products or programs because they’re younger,” he says. “Many female ODs who are setting up a practice want to offer more premium products,” he adds. Bieker of RGV Optical agrees. “A lot of the female practitioners want to know about the latest products and technology,” he says. “New ODs want to do quality work. A lot of the women are interested in fashion, and they want to find out about the newer lenses and materials. If they’re selling a $300 frame, they want to put a good lens into it,” he adds.

With women and minorities swelling the ranks of today’s eye care practitioners, labs that want to stay profitable will do well to sit up and take notice that different folks respond better to different marketing and sales strategies.

Liz Martinez is a licensed optician and a professional writer. She can be reached through her Web site at www.LizMartinez.com.

CURRENT ISSUE


August/September LabTalk 2017