I have been in private practice for over 30 years, and have had experience with both independent and corporate optometry. I have heard colleagues over the years complain about the constant pressure of competition, and how that competition is hard to keep up with. There is the competition for patients from other private practices, from corporate optometry and from online retailers.
For purposes of this article, let’s tackle the competition from corporate optometry. There are advantages and disadvantages to all types of optometric practices.
If you are in private practice, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses and those of your competition. When I was in business school, this was called a SWOT analysis. SWOT stand for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Let’s use this format to discuss how to not only compete, but thrive, in private practice.
If you are in private practice, you need to know what makes you appealing to patients. Why did they choose you over a corporate setting or an online retailer? The biggest strength a private practitioner has is just that: you are private. I cannot emphasize this point enough, and in private practice I think you lose sight of this advantage. Most people want to see you because you practice in a private setting.
To my mind, it is no different than the restaurant business. Yes, there are chain restaurants that are good and appealing, but there are still numerous mom and pop restaurants that compete and thrive. Personally, I would rather go to a good local Italian restaurant than to Olive Garden. What’s the attraction? In privately owned restaurants, you sometimes get to meet the owner and have a conversation with them. If you have gone a few times, you get the feeling that you are appreciated and they are glad to see you back. The food seems better, or is that just my perception? It usually seems like privately owned restaurants care about the presentation of the food and how it tastes more than a corporate chain does.
Does all this sound familiar to what is done in private practice? If it does, that is your greatest strength and you need to take advantage of it. Patients like that they can talk to the owner of the practice.
Another advantage of private practice is that privately owned practices are generally much smaller than most corporate practices. By smaller I don’t mean per individual location, but by the group in general. Being smaller has the advantage that changes can be made much more rapidly. This could apply to altering fees, changing lines of frames, adjusting office hours, adding or subtracting personnel and other changes that can make the practice more attractive to patients.
Private practice’s weaknesses tend to be corporate optometry’s strengths. These include retailing, purchasing power and marketing.
Corporate optometry is great at optical retailing. With large resources, they have the ability to carry a wide array of frames at different price points. They have systems for pricing that make the optical profitable and appealing to patients. Most private practices can’t afford to carry a large frame inventory and find it difficult to compete on price.
Corporate optometry also tends to have a larger budget for marketing, and with numerous locations, can blanket market, which tends to reduce the cost of marketing. Most private practices don’t even have a budget for marketing, and blanket marketing, such as radio or television, costs too much and is not necessarily specific enough for single locations.
Private practice should concentrate on those areas where corporate optometry is weak, including more of an emphasis on specialty areas and items.
In the optical, along with your “bread and butter” lines, you should carry frame lines that are not found in corporate locations. My suggestion would be carrying an ultra-high-end line or lines that are not easily found in your area. Also concentrate more on the service you provide in the optical rather than on the saleable items. Emphasize the knowledge of your optical staff versus that of some corporate locations. Make sure your staff is constantly trained in both optical knowledge and sales.
In contact lens practices, emphasize specialty contact lenses. Offer scleral, multifocal and Ortho-K. Most corporate offices would rather have patients go to their optical than get fit in contact lenses. Use that to your advantage. Educate patients about your knowledge in this area and constantly recommend the latest contact lens products and services.
Practice as much medical optometry as you can. Again, corporate optometry often does not emphasize this area of practice.
Other specialty areas to consider are vision therapy and sports therapy. Any area where your competition is lacking is of benefit to your practice.
The biggest current threat is the erosion of private practice due to pressure from other forms of practice. Corporate optometry and online retailers are not going to go away. Competition to attract patients will always be there, so it is imperative that you continually monitor and update your practice. Use metrics to monitor your practice. Continually train and educate your staff on new products and services and on the patient experience.
Other potential threats are advances in technology that on the surface appear to squeeze us as optometrists out. We need to use those to our advantage and not be fearful or bury our heads in the sand to changes. Look at history. When the autorefractor debuted many thought that was the end of optometrists performing refractions. When disposable contact lenses appeared on the market many believed patients would continually purchase lenses without returning to your practice. Yes, some patients abuse their contacts, but it is our job to educate them about why that can be harmful to their eyes.
So, what’s in store for the future of private practice? I believe that the number of private practitioners will continue to shrink, but private practice optometry will never disappear. Patients still want that relationship, and they want a doctor who cares about them. Private practice is best suited for that type of care. Make it happen in your practice.