What can the independent optical sector do in order to thrive in an evolving marketplace? And what can the AOP can do to support them? These were the key questions discussed at an Independents Day meeting established by the Independent Practitioners Committee, an AOP committee held in partnership with the AIO and ABDO (4 July).
Opening the discussion, four professionals from across the sector shared insight into how they have embraced change, analysed their market and evolved with successful outcomes.
For the CEO of Leightons Opticians, Ryan Leighton, the key to success for independents stems from the customer experience. “At Leightons we have tried to create an experience that is different from what customers will get elsewhere – not just from others in optics but, from everywhere else on the High Street,” he shared.
“It’s important to remind ourselves that we are not just competing with others in optics, but we’re competing with the likes of Amazon too,” he emphasised.
Recognising that Leightons’ main audience is aged 50-plus, the business focused on this niche and over the last seven years has concentrated its efforts on recruiting new customers within this age demographic, as well as retaining existing patients.
“This means that we defined our strategy and have allocated more of our resources to this customer demographic. Having a strategy in place provides us with a focus and ultimately means that we understand the needs of our core customer better,” Mr Leighton said.
“From the equipment that we purchase and the products that we stock, to the training that we provide staff and how we communicate, everything is done with the 50-plus demographic in mind,” he added.
"It’s important to remind ourselves that we are not just competing with others in optics, but we’re competing with the likes of Amazon too"
Optometrist Shamina Asif believes independent practices can thrive in offering more than a sight test service.
Ms Asif spearheaded the Healthy Living Optical Practice (HLOP) scheme in Dudley in 2008. The initiative sees practices offer additional health services such as NHS health checks, smoking cessation, alcohol screening and weight management in store.
“These people are in our practices already, and we are talking to them about these things already, so why not give them access to these services there and then to save them having to wait for an appointment at the doctors surgery?” she said.
Sharing insight into the scheme’s success, Ms Asif said: “Independent practices and franchise practices are the ones that have been most successful in introducing this scheme because they are in control of what is going on in practice.”
Ms Asif emphasied: “[In Dudley] we are making more money from HLOP than we are from cataract referrals,” adding: “Optical practices have done much better than pharmacists offering the service in our area.”
The scheme is currently being rolled out in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and has been integrated into the MECS contract in Greater Manchester.
“In 10 years, I can see this being rolled out across the UK,” she said.
Creating a strategy
With three practices in Lincolnshire, optometrist Tushar Majithia realised that in order to grow his business he needed to develop a long-term strategy. To do this, he analysed the patient demographic in the area and looked at what services he could offer to best meet their needs.
The business also looked at and refined the patient journey from start to finish. “We looked at how we could enhance each step of the journey for the benefit of the patient,” he shared. He also revealed that introducing a pre-exam lifestyle questionnaire and a message asking for feedback following the eye test has proven beneficial.
For business owner Gavin Rebello, the success of an independent business lies in efficiency. “Independents do not need clinical support – they know what they are doing – but what every business owner needs if they want to survive and thrive is support in running their business efficiently,” he emphasised.
By Mr Rebello’s own admission, he learned this the hard way when he took over his first practice 15 years ago and quickly realised that he had “zero business knowledge.”
“I didn’t know how to run a team and made lots of mistakes,” he said.
However, he learned from his mistakes and reached out to his peers and established a group of like-minded practice owners who could share their own experiences and learn from each other.
Some of the practitioners who initially sat around that table went on to establish the software company Storm. “Storm was designed by business owners to save other business owners time. It can provide live profit and loss reports, help you get patient testimonials that you can share on social media and support you with HR and managing your team,” Mr Rebello explained.
Mr Rebello believes that there are currently five pathways independent practices can take, each with varied outcomes for the future. There’s the high-flying, focused practice that knows what they are doing and have defined their market; there is the pillar of the community practice owner who is doing well but is not future-proofing their business; there is the ‘sad’ group who is failing to plan for the future and adapt; there is the franchise route; and there is the co-operative.
In search of a new challenge, 18 months ago Mr Rebello sold his three practices in North Essex and moved 180 miles away to Great Malvern where he opted to take the co-operative path and opened a practice under the Hakim Group.
This is the right pathway for Mr Rebello because he retains control of the practice, has the comfort of the ‘back office’ support of a larger business and finds community in being part of a group of 100-plus practitioners, he shared.
"Succession planning, retaining staff and attracting pre-regs is essential"
On the floor
Welcoming views from the floor, delegates shared insight into their anxieties and aspirations for the future of independent optometry, highlighting areas they felt they could benefit from additional support on.
For one independent practice owner, the problem with independent optometry is that, generally, it is not a friend of change. “We are friends of resisting change and of battening down the hatches and hoping that it’s going to get better and ignoring the trends that are happening around us and refusing to adapt to them,” he said.
“How can we change that attitude?” he asked.
“We need to provide independents with tangible support and not just tell them what to do,” emphasised another delegate in response.
With new disruptors to the sector emerging, a need to “surround and protect our core function” was felt by a number of delegates and it was acknowledged that upskilling and offering enhanced services could support that aim.
“Enhanced services provide the profession with a massive opportunity to go from a £21 sight test fee to a MECS fee that is twice that amount,” said one optometrist, emphasising: “We have to start providing these services so that we can enhance our offering.”
It was pointed out by another delegate that as hospitals begin to breach protocols in terms of waiting and treatment times, optometrists are in an ideal position to support them through enhanced services.
Some agreed that diversifying by offering additional services could also be beneficial, with Ms Asif confirming that “more people walk through the practice door as a result of the HLOP scheme – it acts as a business driver.”
It was highlighted that offering audiology services has proven beneficial for multiples and that some independents are now also benefiting from this.
Building relationships with independents in the local area and cross-referring was suggested as a potential business generator. “Could independent businesses in the local community collaborate?” a delegate said, explaining: “Opticians, dentists and veterinary practices, for example, will have a very similar and common client base and the biggest way independent businesses can have an impact is by growing their presence in the community.”
There was agreement in the room that when it comes to supporting independents, there are lots of ‘whats’ but not enough ‘hows.’
“Rather than telling people what they need to do, they need to be given the steps for how they can do it,” a delegate said.
“There is a big gap between translating what into how…best practice examples of getting from A to B, who can help you and how you get the most out of said thing would be really useful,” another delegate said.
Delegates also shared their views on how the profession needs to attract new practitioners to the independent sector in order to grow it. “Succession planning, retaining staff and attracting pre-regs is essential,” a delegate said, while another highlighted: “It would be beneficial for independents to have a structured stream through which they could offer summer school and pre-reg placements like the multiples do.”
The idea of independents sharing a pre-reg optometrist was also discussed.
Educating optometry students about the options of practise that are available to them was also identified.
Image credit: Getty