Finding Riches in Niches - Pursuing safety eyewear clients

By Seth J. Bookey
To compete in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace, wholesale optical labs are developing new, profitable niches. As more workplaces make sure to become OSHA compliant and protect their employees' vision, pursuing a safety prescription (SRx) eyewear program is a positive way to build business. SRx has a good track record as an option to bolster day-to-day business without major changes to a lab’s operation. Even labs that don’t aggressively market their SRx services still find it a popular, profitable business, as well as a reputation builder for both labs and their ECP accounts.

Labs are also pursuing SRx business outside of their own backyards. By following up leads and providing companies with streamlined pricing and packages for safety eyewear, labs are helping ECPs deliver proper SRx eyewear, both locally and nationally. Experience has also shown that patients who are happy with their SRx eyewear—which they are required to wear anyway—often become second-pair dress eyewear customers, and bring in their families.

Keeping It Simple

Labs can create a win-win situation for themselves, their ECP clients, and the patients, by helping eye care professionals set up SRx clients, and treating every safety eyewear job like any other pair of glasses. Labs can help their clients by finding companies that need to provide SRx, and then helping them set up a marketing program.

Taylor McStay, an optician at Lakeway Eye Clinic in Gillette, Wyo., noted that “the labs set up the safety contacts for us. The employees come in here and usually get two pair a year, or as needed.” She also noted that employees are well educated about their options, and regardless of their work situation, they are seeking PALs, safety sunwear, and even photochromic options. Labs can also simplify the process for ECPs by keeping current with the latest safety-lens standards.

At Precision Optical in Creston, Iowa, safety prescription eyewear has been a profitable niche that has been growing even more in recent years. Co-owner Mike Tamerius attributes this growth to consolidation among U.S. businesses in general, where “more savvy business people are purchasing other businesses and are looking at every way to save money.”

The lab has seen 25-percent growth in SRx, with the category accounting for about 10 to 12 percent of the lab’s jobs. With the lab’s overall business growing by 30 percent, the growth in safety was not out of proportion with the rest of Precision Optical's business.

Precision’s growth comes via helping their independent ECP accounts pursue business. “We don’t have a full-time sales rep for safety,” Tamerius pointed out. “We get leads from customers who might say, ‘There’s a motorcycle plant down the road from us with terrible [safety] work from their suppliers,’ and we then approach them. Our approach is, let’s help our customer secure more business in his area. We very rarely solicit an account unless a customer has given us a lead.”

“People expect more from their suppliers," he added. "The traditional companies that have been strong in safety have been losing ground, as have regional labs. Folks are now buying their supplies on a more national basis.”

Streamlined pricing has also been a key to making safety work. “We’ve always positioned ourselves as a no-frills, high-volume provider. People want to know ‘what’s the bottom line, and how much are we going to have to pay each year.’ We do a lot of packaging with safety eyewear,” Tamerius said. “We use firm, fixed pricing. We have three price points on our safety, and that’s it."

Labs can also simplify SRx for the patients' companies as well, by marketing to them directly, finding them local ECPs to work with their employees, and providing a simple source of safety eyewear.

Precision works with about 25 to 30 ECPs across the U.S. “We build loyalty with larger plants by finding [ECP] sources in their community. Plants love a single source, and they like making one payment a month to us,” Tamerius said.

Package pricing has been successful for safety clients. “One thing that resonated early on with safety directors was that they couldn’t make head nor tail of a price list from a lab. We came in with a guarantee of making safety eyewear in any Rx within a choice of ten safety frame styles for $60. From there, they can decide about add-ons,” he said.

Progressives, Transitions, or tints become add-on items. The lab has three package-price structures for PALs-value, standard, and higher-end. “Most companies have an upgrade charge. We have standard pricing for trifocals and progressives,” Tamerius added, “Most employees are willing to pay the upgrade charge.”

“More and more independent practitioners are getting into the safety business to supplement their patient load,” points out Bill Inman, chief operating officer and senior vice president of the lab at CSC Optical of Watsonville, Calif. “We’ve referred some customers to accounts so they can handle the dispensing aspects of it. Sometimes they come to us and ask what we can do for them. We’ve developed a special safety price list, brought in a complete line of safety frames.”

Safety prescription eyewear accounts for about two percent of the lab’s business. Simplifying matters for clients. CSC has pricelists for safety eyewear that include the frame. Standard lens options include single vision, FT28, trifocals, and PALs.

“In the PALs we have three tiers of PALs—standard, medium, and premier. We have options like FT35 as an add-on to the price,” he noted.

As a further convenience to its ECP clients, CSC provides them with a price list that they can then “mark up for their own bidding, and determine their own fees. Most of them provide their safety clients with their own packages. We can supply them with a fixed set of safety frames. They have to let us know what kind of displays they want,” Inman said. CSC has its own line of safety frames, and supplements them as needed with selection from Titmus and On Guard.

Staying Competitive

“Safety has become extremely competitive and a lot of labs see it as a competitive niche for themselves. A lot of companies are going after the safety market,” said Bill Sawyer, safety manager for RiteStyle Optical. The Omaha, Neb.-based lab, which is still family owned, does an SRx eyewear business that accounts for 10 to 12 percent of its business.

“It’s been growing in the past few years since 9/11,” Sawyer said, when the terrorist event led to some factory shutdowns that affected RiteStyle’s SRx business. “We have five reps across the country that make ophthalmic calls,” he added. Sawyer and another staffer cover a five-six state area; RiteStyle also has in-house safety coordinators.

The lab does not do package pricing, but “we are extremely competitive. We haven’t had to go to a package price. Everything is priced individually, as are add-ons. We do have some preferred pricing for larger accounts,” Saywer noted. One of those larger accounts includes Union Pacific railroad, which has 22,000 employees.

Sawyer has seen a variety of popular add-ons that some employees are willing to pay for themselves. These include Transitions lenses, progressives, AR coating, and scratch coatings. The lab even still sells glass SRx for those customers who prefer it.

“Some clerical people like AR. Computer lenses are also getting some attention now so we’re promoting it more and more,” he added.

RiteStyle helps ECPs with marketing and setting up a safety area in the dispensary. “We get some sample frames that we can put into offices so we can set them up with some displays without financial outlays. We can custom-design things as needed. We inventory a lot of safety product here in the lab and send out a frame if needed. Most ECPs have one of each safety frame. Offices tend to have about 25 frames on hand—that’s a nice collection,” he said.

RiteStyle does some onsite dispensing but usually finds optical shops near its safety clients to perform eye exams for employees. The lab also makes sure employees get their safety eyewear as soon as possible. “We treat safety the same as we do ophthalmic. We try to get most of our frames in two days to clients. We are in a position to ship anywhere from 900 to 1000 ophthalmic jobs a day, so we have an efficient system. Safety gets out equally fast as other jobs.

Safety Consideration

Adding safety Rx eyewear to your lab's menu of services is not as difficult as it might seem. Keep these concepts in mind when considering this niche.

• Be Patient: A lab that views SRx as a burden won’t stick with it. Maintain realistic goals. Eventually, for each pair of SRx sold, a second pair sale will be accompanying it.

• Convenience: While the eye exam itself might take some time for the ECPs, the ordering process shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, allowing patients to “feel good” about the dispensaries you serve. Helping clients with the authorization forms and keeping displays up-to-date inevitably makes the process easier for patients, the safety managers where they work, the ECP, and your lab. Providing quality service keeps corporate contracts renewed, reducing the fluctuation that often accompanies dress eyewear patients. Also, SRx patients must have this eyewear for work, so they are going to ECPs without lures or advertising.

• Networking: If you don’t want to ferret out corporate safety clients yourself, ask the manufacturers of safety frames to pair you up with potential clients. Labs can even ask their ECP clients if they are seeing patients who need SRx for work.

• Know the Facts: Labs can provide education—everyone in the dispensary needs to understand SRx and its customer, since this niche is a growth opportunity. Wholesale labs can provide ABO-accredited training. Understanding the product is essential also: Safety lenses will only work when used with a safety frame, and vice versa. Simply dispensing a polycarbonate lens won’t provide adequate protection.

The ANSI standard can be found at http:// webstore.ansi.org/ansidocstore/default.asp and search for ANSI Z87.1-2003 for information about “Occupational and Educational Personal Eye and Face Protection.” Search for ANSI Z80.5-2004 for “Requirements for Opthalmic Frames Devices.”

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Labtalk May/June 2018