Get ahead of the curve

Consumer markets, of which dentistry is one, always follow a pattern that is firmly based on two fundamental marketing principals.

The first principal is that all consumer markets change over time, nothing stays the same. Change is largely driven through innovation, fear and uncertainty, entrepreneurial flair or indeed all three. Think of Ryan Air, B&Q, Amazon or the CO OP funeral service.

The second rule is based on the principal that if you listen carefully and truly understand what the consumer wants, you can change their traditional buying behaviour over time by leveraging innovation, accessibility, perceived value or remarkable service levels. There are countless examples of this, from the sale of fashion products through supermarkets (George at ASDA) to the sale of car insurance (Direct Line) through the telephone and then latterly online.

We have all witnessed the dramatic changes in the UK optics business over the last 25 years. Relaxation of advertising rules, new competition, and the abolition of the NHS eye test for all made for challenging times. Yet amidst this upheaval, the birth of Specsavers was one of the industry’s great success stories. Husband and wife team Doug and Mary Perkins seized the opportunity to change the optical care industry after deregulation in 1983, with a mission to provide quality eyecare at affordable prices clearly, simply and consistently. It is now the largest privately owned optical company in the world, with more than 1,350 stores throughout the UK, Ireland, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and a turnover of £1.2billion.

Today 70% of the UK market for contact lenses and spectacles is in the hands of just 4 groups. So how did this happen and, more importantly, what impact did the change have on the UK’s 40,000 independent Opticians in 1990, when the large companies began taking ground? The inevitable first defensive position to take if a multiple opens next door is to take your proposition and positioning ‘up market’, clearly distancing your business from the ‘value for money’ end of the market. The problem with this defensive strategy is that everyone thinks that there’s nowhere to go but ‘up market’, so there are 20,000 other business owners thinking the same thoughts and all attempt to move to the same market position. Some will execute it well, carve out a successful niche and build a robust business as a premiumn niche operator as a result. However the majority of independent opticians vaporised over a 10-year period, ask yourself why? 

So what does this mean for the dental practice owner in the UK? Due to the non-invasive nature of optics it is often dismissed as a less skilled procedure requiring less patient confidence, therefore it could be argued that it has little in common with dentistry. Perhaps, but try putting yourself in the customers’ / patients’ shoes. A brand that you have known and trusted like Boots or Tesco opens a state-of-the-art dental practice within a 12 minute drive of where you live offering easy parking, 7 day opening and speaks to you in a language you understand; demystifying the world of dentistry, talking about a pain free, relaxed experience at value for money pricing. It’s going to get your attention and serious consideration, particularly if your current dentist is unremarkable and perceived to be expensive.

Change is coming, if not directly to your catchment near it. The ripple effect will have consequences; if all the independent Dentists adopt the traditional defence of moving ‘up market’ then it is going to get crowded very quickly. Stay ahead of the game by applying the earlier mentioned two principal marketing rules to your practice:

Rule #1 Embrace the change, don’t become a victim. Look at your catchment, evaluate your competitive set, establish what they are not doing well or simply not doing, find the gaps and monetise them. 

You may discover that you’ve chosen the wrong market – the perceived need for what you offer isn’t strong enough, they aren’t willing to pay what you need to charge, or the size of the market is too small. In this case, it’s time to position yourself for an entirely different market. Don’t just think of the somewhat hackneyed spa practice format, consider a ‘Saga’ type practice, or opening a ‘Tesco’ before they do (Tesco won’t open in your town if there is a dentist doing the same thing as there are just too many open points!)

Rule #2 Find out what your customers and non-customers really want by asking them [(it is important to use a third party to do this); you might be very surprised. You may find that by opening at 6am daily and serving a light breakfast to all your business executive clients, you keep them for life, whatever Boots is offering. Be innovative – you need to think outside the box to be able to make a success of a business in tough times.

Keep your eyes open for change before it happens – so you’ve already thought through how you’re going to make critical adjustments before it’s too late. In tough times like these, only dental practices that are nimble, resourceful and above all, innovative, will survive and thrive. 

Get ahead (and stay ahead) of the curve now whilst there is time and you could be in for a substantial growth in your business.

Jonathan Fine Director of Marketing, Breathe Business


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