“Few optometry businesses appear to have succumbed directly to the pressures of the pandemic”
AOP chief executive, Adam Sampson, highlights the resilience of optometry businesses during the pandemic as practice owners continue to evaluate and adapt
11 April 2022
My walk to the office every morning is a traditional one, following the route taken by generations of medieval herdsmen driving their livestock from the countryside to be sold at Smithfield Market. Over time, it has come to look very different: wandering down Islington’s increasingly chi-chi Upper Street, through the architect and designer-heavy Clerkenwell to the fringes of the City, people skirt Pret wrappers rather than cow pats, pass horse troughs planted out with flowers, and drink in former printworks now repurposed as expensive cocktail bars.
Over the past year or two, that picture has changed once more. When I started at the AOP last June, we were still deep in lockdown and all the shops and bars were shuttered. Over the months, those at the top end of my route, in Islington itself, have gradually reopened. Yet many of those in the heart of the City remain resolutely closed, and the accumulated post indicates that they will never reopen. This is not just a London phenomenon: across large swathes of the UK, the pace of recovery in villages and towns has far outstripped that in city centres. A combination of the pandemic and online purchasing is transforming the way we buy and consume. The High Streets of the future may look very different from the High Streets pre-pandemic, let alone those of medieval past.
The High Streets of the future may look very different from the High Streets of the year before last, let alone those of the medieval past
This trend seems to affect optometry too. On my morning walk, I pass no fewer than nine optometry practices, ranging from multiples and high-end boutique chains, to sole traders. All are back up and running; all, at a glance at least, are doing a decent trade. Unlike so many traders around here, few optometry businesses appear to have succumbed directly to the pandemic.
As this edition of OT discusses, some practice owners are beginning to ask themselves serious questions about whether the traditional optometry business model needs to change. Given the rise in online purchasing, do they seek to increase their clinical income stream? Conversely, given the financial limitations on NHS spending in the area of optometric services (signalled, sadly, by a totally inadequate increase in the level of the general ophthalmic services fee), is it time to eschew the NHS and focus on private work? Or should smaller providers seek the shelter and economies of scale of a bigger group to reduce their level of personal risk?
The future of the profession is likely to be a diverse one and it will be for every practice owner to make their own decision about what sort of business they want to be
These are not debates specific to optometry: in my seven years as chief legal ombudsman, I was party to many of the same conversations among legal practitioners. They are vital discussions to have, and issues which the AOP is eager to help our members grapple with. The future of the profession is likely to be a diverse one and it will be for every practice owner to make their own decision about what sort of business they want to be. But one thing is certain: in 50 years’ time, the business of optometry will have changed as fundamentally as the look of my walk from Highbury Corner to Smithfield Market.