“We relish being able to demonstrate our point of difference”
In Brighton, a local independent and a branch of Specsavers have worked side-by-side since 1991. OT found out what they’ve learnt from each other
04 May 2022
Existing on the same Brighton street for over three decades, Specsavers North Street and independent practice Eyesite Opticians provide a blueprint for how to work collaboratively and avoid rivalry as distinct local businesses operating within the same sector. Here, Specsavers Brighton ophthalmic director, Lateef Iqbal, and managing director of Eyesite Opticians, Jim Green, tell OT how it’s done.
The working relationship
- Lateef Iqbal, ophthalmic director of Specsavers Brighton
- Jim Green, managing director of Eyesite Opticians, a Hakim Group practice
Iqbal is newer to his practice, taking over as ophthalmic director for Brighton’s two Specsavers stores 18 months ago.
Green describes the relationship as a symbiotic one, and believes that the clear business direction and goals of the two practices allows them to work well alongside each other. “Being an independent practice allows us to differentiate ourselves from the competition,” he said. “We don’t chase the price-sensitive market and we position ourselves slightly differently (from Specsavers) in terms of the products and services we offer. It seems to work well for both of us. It’s been a good relationship, which has continued even as the directors and practice management has changed in each business.”
Having more than one practice on the High Street is a good thing as it offers people choice and convenience
He also notes that “even when times are challenging, you still end up having a chat with the guys next door. In Brighton city centre, there are six or seven opticians in about four square miles, so it’s not just Specsavers as the competition. We know a lot of the optometrists who work there and we naturally see them at events or other industry get-togethers in the wider community. We’re able to have chats outside at the front of the practice, and sometimes even ex-colleagues and staff have moved there, or we've recruited from there as well.”
Transparency between the practices has been key, he said: “There’s always been a lot of honesty along the way, and we’ve always managed to avoid an acrimonious relationship. It seems to work very well for us.”
Avoiding rivalryIqbal emphasised the importance of customer service in avoiding rivalries appearing between the practices: “There’s certainly been no rivalry in my time here, and I don’t believe there ever has been,” he said. “Customer choice is really important, and I think there’s enough of a difference in what we offer to what they offer for us to be able to happily co-exist.
“While having an independent as close as Eyesite is to us is unusual, having more than one practice on the High Street is a good thing as it offers people choice and convenience, and encourages people to visit North Street and support the local economy.”
While we are competitors, we want to make sure that we're doing right by our patients every step of the way
Green agrees: “Because we're operating in the same sector, but in different demographics, I don’t find there is a rivalry. When you have an ambition of wanting to provide eye care to your community, not just for the current generation, but for generations to come, that changes your mentality. We're looking to be able to provide eye care for our communities not just for the next five or 10 years, but for the next 50 or 100 years. That attitude means we are always keeping our patients at the centre of what we do. We have found that adopting a patient-centred approach to eye care and eyewear makes our decision making a lot more straightforward. While we are competitors, we want to make sure that we're doing right by our patients every step of the way.”
He added: “I think healthy competition is necessary; it certainly keeps us all on our toes. We relish being able to demonstrate our point of difference.”
The key thing for us is making sure that you're absolutely clear about your vision, your ambitions, and the direction of your business
The practices might have developed in order to successfully avoid business rivalry, but have there been any challenges that they’ve found themselves needing to address along the way?
Green said: “From my experience, we’ve been able to overcome any challenge by maintaining that close relationship. Brighton is quite a close-knit community. There are lots of different ways of travelling to work, whether by car, bus, train or bike, and there are always a couple of guys from next door who we will often see in the morning and have a chat to.
“Even if challenges arise with patients, for example, if they have had their eye examination in one location and then brought spectacles in another, we would have a conversation about how to arrive at the best solution. At the end of the day, it’s always about keeping the patient at the centre of the discussion, to provide the best outcome for them.”
Sharing patient careThe discussion over shared care is an interesting one, even if the two practices cater to different customer demographics and might not often refer patients between each other.
Iqbal confirms that this is true: Specsavers is more likely to refer patients to the hospital eye service if required, and also takes on the majority of Brighton Minor Eye Conditions Service patients, for which it also takes referrals from the practices within the city.
Green points out that Eyesite often takes referrals for frame reglazing, from practices across the city: “We have this with a large sunglass retailer near us,” he explained. “They will send all of their patients to us if they need a repair. We see this as an opportunity to be able to showcase our skills and expertise, so every time that happens, from wherever they have come from, it’s a chance for us to illustrate what we do and how we do it and hopefully gain a new patient to the practice.”
He added: “Both practices are GOS contractors, so we cater on that front. Typically, we would keep space for walk-in appointments so, pre COVID-19, if there was an emergency next door and they couldn't cater for it, they would send them in to see us. But that was on very rare occasions. In most cases, there are enough options available to the wider community here in Brighton; it’s a big city and there are a lot of patients who require eye care and eye care services.”
Fostering better relationships
Green believes that, as long as an independent has a point of difference to its local multiple, a positive relationship can be fostered – and that local competition can even be seen as an opportunity, with the marketing spend of multiples “a way of attracting attention to eye care and eyewear.”
“The key thing for us is making sure that you're absolutely clear about your vision, your ambitions, and the direction of your business,” he said. “If that means evolving your business model, moving into more of a premium sector, for example, then don't be afraid to do so. The great thing with being an independent business is the fact that you can make decisions and adapt to change quickly. You can absolutely be in charge of your own destiny.”
Speaking about Specsavers specifically, he added: “I would definitely avoid going for the same market; I think that's obvious. We just don’t have that buying capacity. Generally, the multiples are good at what they do, so build your strategy and vision based on your strengths and how you want to drive the business.”
At the end of the day, we are all in it together and the customer has the choice to walk away from both of us
Iqbal sees communication, mutual respect, and a customer/patient-centric ethos as the most important thing: “Never criticise your colleagues, because all you are actually doing is criticising your own profession,” he said. “If an issue does arise, just talk to them about it. At the end of the day, we are all in it together and the customer has the choice to walk away from both of us. They can go elsewhere, or buy online. We need to give them a reason to come and see us, and to choose to come and see an optician face-to-face rather than just order some frames online. It’s important that people seek that professional advice, whoever they choose, and we all need to work together to make sure that people value what High Street opticians offer.”
He added: “I’d actually love to see doctors and dentists on the High Street too, to normalise it as somewhere people can go to get their health needs met.”
Green agrees: “It's really important to make sure that there is a personal relationship with all your neighbours,” he said. “I’d advocate going out for a coffee with the directors, if you're going to be next door to each other, so you can have a general chat about how you see the optical market. Even if it's just having a conversation outside the front of the practices, about business and about how things are working. If we are all in the same mindset, which is to provide eye care for our communities, then we should have the same guiding principles. If that's where the emphasis is, then there's no reason why that relationship can't become stronger. If each party knows which demographic they're catering for, we can stick to our business model and stay true to our values and principles.”
It's really important to make sure that there is a personal relationship with all your neighbours
What would Green and Iqbal say to those within the sector who are sceptical that multiples and independents can work together cohesively?
Jim is unequivocal: “I think we’ve proved since 1991 that it can work,” he said. “This is based on a big city, in Brighton, and I understand that if you transpose this into a small village it might be a different story. But I still think that patients will make their buying decisions and be loyal to a lesser or greater extent to the practice where they’ve been all their lives. If it's an existing practice where you've got a multiple approaching into the town or city, I do think that your existing database will be loyal to you, or at the very least have some allegiance to you. Whether that be because of personal relationships, or rapport over the years.
“At the same time, it would be naive to assume that they couldn’t possibly look elsewhere. That makes it even more important to provide clarity to that patient about what your offering is and to make sure you look after them. Patients only tend to leave an optician if they are unhappy with something. By looking after them you can minimise their need to look elsewhere.”
Iqbal is on the same page: “We need each other. All Specsavers stores are locally owned and run, but as a large business we are able to raise a huge amount of awareness about the importance of eye health, encouraging people to get an eye test whichever optician they choose. We can all learn from each other and improve how we work. Not everyone is looking for the same thing from their optician, as they are not for a restaurant or clothes shop. The more the merrier really, as long as they are delivering clinical excellence and value to their patients.”
To close, what’s the most important thing they’ve learnt from each other?
Green is quick to identify the lessons that independents can take from having a multiple on their doorstep: “We’ve learned the power of marketing; that’s what stands out straight away. But I also think they have remained true to what their business model is, and how they operate clinically is definitely in line with this. We’ve had to learn how to be different from that, asking ourselves what patients enjoy about their experience next door and what they perhaps don’t.”
We can all learn from each other and improve how we work. Not everyone is looking for the same thing from their optician, as they are not for a restaurant or clothes shop
Green added: “Particularly throughout COVID-19, as we did, Specsavers had quite a tight framework about how they wanted to operate. If we imagine the optics industry as a whole, we would want to make sure that patients were experiencing the same level of COVID-19 protection and care from one GOS contractor to the next. I think the team next door have stayed true to how we felt they should be preparing the practice and looking after their patients. I’d like to think that feeling is reciprocated.”
Iqbal also finds inspiration from having Eyesite in such proximity: “I really enjoy having a look in their window when I get a spare five minutes, as they have a different approach to us, and it can provide inspiration for our store,” he said. “The most important thing is that we are different enough in what we offer to happily co-exist. There is definitely room for both of us on the High Street.”