NEW YORK—The rapid changes currently affecting the eyewear/eyecare marketplace—new paradigms in the retail arena, the ongoing digital revolution, and the challenges health-care reform may bring to eyecare delivery—were tackled by a group of experts from both inside and outside the optical industry during Wednesday's Vision Monday Global Leadership Summit.
About 330 key optical retailers, eyecare professionals, managed vision executives, suppliers and other industry executives attended this fourth-annual VM Summit, this year themed "Mindset: Reset."
The event—organized by VM and sponsored by DAC Vision, International Vision Expo, Luxottica Group, Carl Zeiss Vision and CIBA Vision—highlighted speakers from a broad spectrum of disciplines. Morning topics ranged from the economy's impact on existing paradigms in optical retailing to how new digital media redefine how the consumer purchases goods and services; an afternoon panel featured optometrists offering their points of view on various issues currently impacting their profession.
In the retail panel that kicked off the VM Summit, Bill Jehling, president and CEO of 46-unit Clarkson Eyecare in St. Louis, focused on the importance of customer service, saying, "We're very tuned in to the patient, and make sure everything is taken care of," up to and including centralizing Clarkson's telephone service so phones aren't ringing in its offices all day, so staffers have more time to focus on patients.
Clarkson also is very active on the Internet, including an internal Clarkson Nation Web site to keep doctors and staff up-to-date on company developments.
Kelly Carter, vice president of merchandising and sales development for Eye Care Centers of America (ECCA), said his firm's largest paradigm shift has been identifying various consumer groups: the financially challenged, who want to fill a definite need while spending as little as possible; the financially stable, who are fiscally conservative but have definite needs and wants; and the financially secure, for whom shopping represents "the thrill of the hunt."
Said Carter, "It's important to think of consumers psychographically, not just demographically."
Richard Golden, president of SEE, with 26 all-private-label boutiques, said although his customers still go for trendy eyewear styles, "The days of irrational exuberance are over, at least for now." But on the plus side, "[Store] traffic is definitely coming back, and the consumer is starting to dip his or her toe back in the water."
Added Golden, "Consumers are starting to buy discretionary items again, but people are only buying where they see value."
Kristen McCabe, associate VP of product development, sun and luxury brands, for Luxottica Retail, said Luxottica expects long-term growth to continue in the luxury segment despite the economy, citing healthy gains for Luxottica's Ilori and Optical Shop of Aspen stores so far this year.
She outlined new elements to pique consumers' interest, including "social sun" kiosks in Sunglass Hut stores so customers can send photos of themselves wearing sunwear to friends or post them on social media, and "celebration chocolates" for consumers who buy at an Ilori location. What's prompting spending today is "authentication and added value," McCabe noted.
Bill Scott, president of the newly formed JMI ECP Business Services Group, set the stage for the second morning session by discussing the increased use of digital media and social networking sites among small businesses. Scott also announced the launch of SightNation.com, the first industry-wide social networking Web site for ECPs and optical professionals. (See page 3, for more on SightNation)
Marc Gobé, chairman and CEO of Emotional Branding, kicked off the digital panel, saying the aging Baby Boomer generation wanted to "own the world," while the growing Gen X and Gen Y generations want to "fix" and "connect" the world by "making their voices heard." Gobé added, "Social networking has empowered the masses, and the medium is as important as the message. Advertising online is four times more effective than traditional advertising. It is a revolution that drives invention and being big does not give you the power that it used to."
Paul Reich, director of Eastern sales for business-review site Yelp.com, added, "People really want to hear the perspective of like-minded people. You don't want to be absent from this conversation. The more content you have, the more you share about your business with them, the more consumers like it. What is said about you is 1,000 times more powerful than anything you say about yourself."
Gilt Groupe VP Nate Richardson agreed, "What we've found in our research on Gen X and Gen Y is that they are incredibly loyal when they find a Web site they like. The Internet gives companies the opportunity to romance their brands online for a creative group of people, and to leverage a brand in a way not possible before in the Web 1.0 and 2.0 models."
Alan Glazier, OD, founder and CEO of Shady Grove Eye & Vision Care, an eyecare pioneer in social media as it applies to small business and a blogger on the subject for SightNation.com, concluded, "The point really isn't to draw people into your business—it is to become more relevant on the Internet, because if you're not involved, you are irrelevant." Glazier added that his practice's marketing budget used to be $8,000 a month; since becoming involved in social media his marketing budget is now close to nothing, while his business has grown from one doctor with one location to a four-doctor operation that just opened its second location.
During a panel of optometrists, Jack Schaeffer, OD, of Schaeffer Eye Center in Alabama, said most private-practice ODs held their own last year, despite the economy. Schaeffer outlined the medical model of optometry, defining the "medical model" OD as "a family primary eyecare doctor."
Schaeffer said the medical model optometry practice offers a "patient-centered approach to eyecare," along with a higher level of professionalism providing not just traditional eye exams but a therapeutic treatment strategy and contact-lens exams.
Tim Jankowski, OD, newly elected chairman of VSP Global's board of directors, stressed that VSP is "committed to opening doors for ODs." Jankowski said the company's goal for its OD partners is parity with other health-care professionals, along greater access to treatment opportunities enabling ODs to do both vision and medical services.
In VSP's view, "[stand-alone] vision plans are important to keep optometry in the [health-care] game," he declared. "Eliminating or restricting vision plans is far too risky for the profession."
Pamela Miller, OD, president of the American Optometric Society (AOS), said her organization was formed last August "to give ODs a voice in their profession." She said 70 percent of the AOS's more than 2,000 members are not affiliated with any other professional organization.
And while the AOS supports the new American Board of Clinical Optometry, Miller said her group's members "recognize that optometric licensing provides the same assurance of competency as does medical board certification."
David Heath, OD, president of SUNY-College of Optometry and a board member of the American Board of Optometry (ABO) representing the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry, agreed with other speakers that a key challenge facing the optometric profession is "becoming fully integrated in the health-care delivery system." To do that, he said, ODs need to embrace a common language on accreditation and certification. Noting that the ABO begins accepting its first applications for certification at the end of April, Heath said, "It's important to understand that board certification is very well established in the health care system."
Randy Brooks, OD, president of the American Optometric Association (AOA), identified "a tremendous unmet need for eyecare, and optometry is well-positioned to meet those health-care needs." Brooks stressed the AOA's support of "non-discrimination of ODs in regard to covered services or reimbursement" by health-insurance plans.
As for establishment of the ABO, he said, "The profession has spoken." Brooks said the ABO was formed, to use a hockey metaphor, "to look at where the puck is going to be, rather than where the puck has been."
In addition to the panels, VM Summit sponsors also addressed the attendees. Wally Lovejoy, Luxottica's senior VP, eyecare development, announced formation of the Think About Your Eyes coalition by his company, Essilor and VSP Global, and said Luxottica is investing $100 million in advertising for its brands and the importance of regular eye exams.
And Dwight Akerman, OD, director, professional programs, North America for CIBA Vision, talked of how contact-lens patients are more profitable over the long-term than eyeglass-only patients, in part because they return to the practice for frequently. He also compared revenues of corporate optometrists vs. private-practice ODs. —Cathy Ciccolella, Deirdre Carroll