NEW YORK--A sold-out crowd of nearly 300 top optical industry executives gathered here on the eve of International Vision Expo East to hear speakers from both inside and outside the vision care field address key issues affecting today's business climate, at the second annual Vision Monday Global Leadership Summit.
The event--produced by VM with sponsorship by Transitions Optical, Hoya, The Vision Council and DAC Vision--highlighted four key elements impacting not only the optical business, but the worldwide marketplace as well: technology, retailing, luxury and health care.
As Marge Axelrad, senior vice president/group editorial director for Jobson's Retail Optical Group, put it in welcoming attendees to the event, "We feel it's important for optical to join the real world."
Under the banner of Technology, speaker Erin Byrne, global chief digital strategist for Burson-Marsteller, noted that the mushrooming growth of all forms of electronic communication has challenged marketers in all industries: "Because of the nature of digital communication, marketers can't totally control their message, they can only influence it."
Byrne said that because consumers trust other consumers most for recommendations on products or services, eyewear and eyecare suppliers must engage potential customers online to build a trusted connection. "Word of mouth is the most prominent way to build your brand," she said. "You need to build a relationship with consumers so they become your advocate."
Lynn O'Connor Vos, chief executive officer/president of Grey Healthcare, spoke of the growing trend toward "do-it-yourself doctors"--consumers who search out symptoms and self-diagnose health or vision problems on the Internet. She said research also indicates that 87 percent of consumers trust peer-generated content on health-related topics they find online, even though much of that information is incorrect.
With so much online dialogue among consumers about health and vision issues, Vos said, "we need to be participating in those conversations, and figure out a way to galvanize people to make the right choices."
In the Retailing segment of the Summit, Dr. Tomás Pfortner, CEO of Argentina's Laboratorio Pfortner Cornealent SACIF, outlined Latin America's optical business. Pfortner said the total retail optical business in Latin America, not including exam fees, generates $4.1 billion in annual revenues-- representing about 24 percent of the U.S. optical market--through more than 37,100 optical shops.
For companies considering the Latin American market, Pfortner cautioned, "To enter the market at the intermediate or high end, you need a clever strategy and strong alliances, because professional skills there are well-developed and customer loyalty is very strong."
Jeff McAllister, senior vice president, optical division, for Wal-Mart Stores, said his company's new emphasis on health and wellness carries over into its optical operations, now part of a new Health and Wellness division. "Our goal is to be the most trusted eye health care provider of choice for patients seeking the best value," he said. "It's more about the eyecare than the eyewear, and how we help people understand the need for both."
Declared McAllister, "We need to communicate consumers' need to see an eyecare professional--we want to grow the size of the pie, not just carve it up." He noted that Wal-Mart's new walk-in health clinics may leverage eyecare as well; the chain has been testing co-locating its optical departments and acute-care clinics in three locations.
In the Luxury area, Ira Neimark, former CEO and chairman of Bergdorf Goodman, assured the Summit audience that "the luxury market is bigger and better than ever." Neimark stressed the importance of serving the customer in the luxury retail segment, urging his listeners to "find a gold mine in the lost art of customer service."
Saying "luxury retailers will continue to grow," he noted that the luxury markets such as China, Russia and India are expanding as well.
Andrea Guerra, CEO of Luxottica Group, described the U.S. as "the largest emerging market for fashion and luxury." Listing the five characteristics of luxury--quality, personalization, the merchandising experience, exclusivity and tradition--Guerra pointed out how each of those five impacts the high-end optical market. He noted, "Those five characteristics of luxury must be in our minds when we chose vendors for our frames."
Looking at training of optical dispensers, Guerra said that in addition to basic product education, training should include motivational and marketing guidance in selling high-end eyewear. Store personnel "need to be able to tell the right stories about their products and brands," he noted. "Stories and emotions can take you away from price."
Looking at Health Care in terms of the eyecare industry, Rob Lynch, president and CEO of VSP Vision Care, stressed, "We believe there is a very strong future for managed vision care." Predicting that the managed vision business will grow by 7 percent to 9 percent "organically" over the next few years, he said surveys indicate that 61 percent of consumers in vision plans offering a funded eye exam use that benefit, versus the mere 16 percent of those with general health insurance who have annual physicals. To increase those eyecare numbers, "we have to prove an annual eye exam is part of taking care of your health," Lynch said.
He noted VSP's participation in several general health care efforts, including the company's recent affiliation with the American Diabetes Association and its link to the Center for Health Transformation's Georgia Project, which will provide health screenings for everyone in Columbus, Ga., for two years.
Wrapping up the Summit, John Agwunobi, MD, senior VP and president of Wal-Mart's Health and Wellness division, said Wal-Mart's vision for this new business segment is to "help people save money so they can live healthier." He stressed that the independent optometrists affiliated with Wal-Mart Optical "are a critical part of our future," adding that in working with those ODs, "we need to become a more active, visible, listening part of this community."
Going forward, Agwunobi said, the giant retailer's goal is "to actively search for new businesses" in health and wellness. "We hope to have an expanding portfolio of services and products," he said. "We'll have to do everything we do better, but we also need to have partners--and we're looking for new ideas."
“This was a great event. It’s rare to get the top executives of so many companies in the industry together in one room.”
--Art Salas, Costco Wholesale
“The Summit touched on some of the most important issues facing the optical business. And once again, it was a good chance to meet and talk with industry peers.”
--Reade Fahs, National Vision
“I’m most interested in hearing Rob Lynch of VSP. They’ve already changed their business model by buying labs. They’re expanding their reach, and are more interested in vertical integration.”
--Steve Swalgen, Santinelli International
The Luxury Segment
“Luxottica owns the world. When they speak, it’s important to hear what they’ve got to say.”
--Shelly Goldman, Eye King
The Technology Presentation
“The technology presentation endorses, reinforces and validates what we’ve been doing for 10 years. I think the speakers were dead on and I agree with the statement that ‘The risk is in not participating.’”
--Dhavid Cooper, FramesDirect.com.
“I wish there was more information on how technology relates to smaller-sized companies. Like how you can get the best bang for your buck when it comes to capital and manpower. I took a lot of notes and the discussion generated a lot of questions and that’s a good thing.”
--Andrea Gluck, Eyewear Designs
The Big Picture
“The whole thing was great. The four topics all tied together well. Action sports is the fastest growing opportunity in the industry but the fashion retail offered us a different perspective. If we all gain a better perspective on the business then business will improve even further.”
--Timothy Swartz, FGXI - Quantum Optics
“As a company which prides itself on staying connected, this meeting allows us to stay current with other leaders. It also gives us a broader vision of what’s ahead.”
--Mike Hundert, Rem