By JONATHAN FINE
Dentists are the little brothers of opticians. They copy. You can see this when you look at their respective markets.
In the 80s Specsavers noticed that something amazing happened if you didn’t work out of second rate premises, act mysteriously with fees and make customers wait ages: more customers came in, and they spent more. The optical market subsequently grew from £1bn to £3bn, and dentists have spent much of the past decade trying to emulate this retail coup. So, how are we doing?
I asked Andrew Sutton, who spent 25 years with optical market leaders Specsavers and at one point ran four stores each with a £1.5m turnover. Andrew was also responsible for Specsavers’ introduction of hearing aid services and its sponsorship of rugby referees.
Tell me about the change in the opticians market
Opticians used to put customers in really difficult situations, leading them through a consultation and then naming a price that often pressurised and embarrassed them if it was out of their budget. It was back to front – customers like to see prices and know where they stand before the consultation. So that’s the first change – pricing has become transparent.
Successful opticians also moved to more premium locations to make themselves accessible, and drastically improved their standards of customer service. The franchise became an easy way to own your own practice; Specsavers started this and people like Vision Express and Boots copied. Interestingly, there was a market leader called Dollond & Aitchison that hung on to the old practitioner mentality (where the customer is examined and dispensing led by the optician rather than trained support staff). It was bought out, and today the independents, which had a 45 per cent market share, have less than 15 per cent. The same is happening in dentistry.
If dentists hold on to habits that are seen as bad habits by customers they will only have themselves to blame should their business stagnate or go backwards.
Where is dentistry in comparison?
Opticians were really innovative in integrating better NHS services. Specsavers took the average £38 NHS voucher, which the profession had lobbied the government to bring in, and offered those NHS customers the chance to buy superior discounted glasses by topping it up with their own money. The same is happening in audiology in a slightly different format and it has benefitted everyone: the customer because they have access to superior products at a discounted rate, and other private customers because it’s pushed the price of products down comparatively. This hasn’t happened yet in dentistry, but why not? It seems dentistry is stuck in low format in this area, while optics have moved on tremendously.
I think most dental practices by now have grasped the importance of great customer service, accessibility and transparent pricing, although, just browsing online, you can see by the poor quality of so many websites that not everyone has got round to implementing change.
There are also few brand leaders for customers to choose and for other dentists to perhaps emulate and respond to. In optics it could be said that Specsavers is the most recognised brand and that customers recognise its focus on the value to middle section of the market, while Vision Express focuses on the higher end.
The marketing spend of Specsavers alone shouts out for the whole profession and collectively makes people more aware of optics and eye health care – so competition can be healthy for industry growth and awareness.
What brands are doing this for dentistry, and are they as effective?
What are your thoughts on combining dentistry, audiology and opticians?
I definitely think this is the way of the future. The difficulty is creating simplicity and a brand around it on a national basis. A group came onto our radar at Specsavers when they tried it 10 years ago in Newcastle and Manchester but they lacked branding. I think if you have a localised focus around a few good practitioners, just like in the way some Specsavers shops perform much better than others, local brand reputation could make it easier. All your services have to all work really well for your brand to have an impact in the community.
I was charged with bringing ideas for audiology or hearing services to Specsavers and spent several months in the USA where this model exists and even in Sears (the American chain of department stores) there were combined services of opticians, dentists and audiologists as individual businesses trading under the long standing and trusted retail name.
If you’d like to explore partnership opportunities with Andrew get in touch and I’d be happy to set up a call.