Why Our Industry is Stalled

By Geff Heidbrink, Harbor Optical
The retail optical industry has experienced very little growth since 2001. There have been major contributing factors. The main reason in my view is the lack of sophistication and training of the retail dispenser today. As Andy Karp of Jobson Publishing has pointed out, we are missing opportunities with the patients that are already in the office. If you take Jobson’s statistics of missed opportunities and divide that by individual offices there is over $100,000 in sales a year walking out the average ECP’s door. If ECPs think they can grow their businesses today with new patients they are sadly mistaken. The independent offices need to do a better job of prescribing products to their existing patients. The doctors need to be engaged in their practice and talk about products during the exam. The opticians need to be trained and understand what they are selling patients.

Over the last several years we have seen the dumbing down of our industry. ECPs are being squeezed by third party programs; doctors have looked to reduce their costs. Most are unwilling to pay for good help. Next to their lab bill, staff is the biggest cost. We, as laboratories also have to look at ourselves. We have enabled the ECPs to hire less qualified staff and not be concerned about quality dispensing. Why? There are no financial consequences to them because of our liberalized warranties. Through warranties and remake policies we have promoted poor dispensing. Every lab in the country would be better off if we could reduce our remakes. We have also seen a decline in opticians and optometric assistants training programs around the country. There are very few formally trained techs and opticians today.

I have attended several manufacturers’ meetings in the last couple of years. It is apparent that our industry is moving to higher tech lenses, Free Form™, higher indexes and more to come. These off-the-street opticians are expected by their employers to explain these lenses and bring value to these expensive products.

We constantly hear from the international companies how much AR is being sold in Asia and Europe and that they are already dispensing Free Form™ lenses. If we contrast the sophistication and training levels between the dispensers in these countries and in the United States there is a dramatic difference in ability. We will never get there at our current level of sophistication of the people presenting products to the consumer. They just do not understand what they are doing.

If we analyze the successful offices we do business with, they all have a common thread. They have well-trained staffs and very little turn over. These offices also have high job averages. The doctors are engaged and talk about products. The smart ECPs have figured out that the profits today are not in contact lenses and removing foreign bodies. The profits today are in eyewear. If you doubt this then why have all the nondispensing ophthalmologists put in optical departments?

What is the solution? We, as laboratories, need to continue to train the ECP’s staff on life style dispensing and product presentations. As an industry we have been talking about life-style dispensing for years and everybody is sick of hearing about it. The fact is, it works and we need to embrace it. Labs need to make this a major initiative. We also have to have our sales people get the message to the doctors. Doctors need to come out of their little dark rooms and talk to their patients. They also need to spend some money on their staff and make an effort to train them. Lab sales reps and lens manufacture reps are a tremendous resource for practitioners to tap into.

A good representative can be a good source of training for office personnel. In turn to help train these people we also need to ask the ECPs for a commitment to try these ideas and chart their results. Their own success will astound them. Lens companies, VCA and the optical media also need to help us get the message to the ECP. Harbor Optical is a member of Global Optics; Global created JumpStart a series of practice development training CD’s. We also have Your Eyes, a life-style dispensing program. Offices that have embraced these programs have been extremely successful and have quantifiable results. I know other groups have similar programs that are successful as well.

The pay back for investing in educating the dispensing staff is fewer remakes due to dispenser errors, more premium products being sold and higher job averages. It all boils down to more profits for our customers, for our labs and for the manufacturers. If we have a strong industry we all win.

Geff Heidbrink, Harbor Optical, Traverse City, Michigan

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May/June LabTalk 2017