The fall and fall of the Independent Optician

Why independence is bad for eyecare

There was a time when harmony reigned in U.K. Optics. The independent optician ruled. There was no doubt that you were tested by “your” optician and they would understand your every need and requirement. Cost was never discussed because there was no market. All you had to decide, as a patient, was whether you wanted to pay for glasses or not.

Alongside the independent was the giant known as Dolland & Aitchison; with decades of experience and, having started from a very reputable base, the high street giant was respected by all in the profession.

The air was calm and we lived in the status quo. It was optical Nirvana; IF you were a practitioner.

Patients, on the other hand, tolerated the situation. With mediocre optics, bland lens options and no true frame choice there was very little they could do.

Then the bombshell landed.

In 1989, the universal free eye test was ripped from the menu. Now, you had to be on a low income or have a risk to eye health to qualify for a free test. Now that some patients paid for their eye tests, they started to get a bit choosy about who would get their hard earned cash.

And it was into this disrupted space that Specsavers launched their Two For One offer and ripped open the market even more. Their only large competitor sat back and did nothing, expecting the whole thing to blow over in a couple of years.

The rest, as they say, is history, but what of the present? Has the opening of a free market improved the delivery of eyecare and does patient choice continue to drive and innovate the eyecare experience?

At a time when Specsavers are pushing towards 50% market share, independent opticians now find that their customer databases are shrinking to a level that means they worry over their future. The cost of delivering quality eyecare rises while large players like Vision Express, Boots and Specsavers continue to use economies of scale to keep retail prices low. It’s an offer that independent opticians struggle to compete with.

In a time of austerity and uncertainty, the patient almost feels compelled to look after their own finances first. Anecdotal evidence suggests that patients do not want to be processed through an “Eye Factory” but they put up with it because cost ultimately is a major player in the decision making process.

But is that strictly true? Is cost really a large inflencer when it comes to deciding who is going to look your most precious of senses? Is the problem that there is really only one player who has a budget large enough to consistently bombard the market with their own messages? If no one else can send out a consistent and persistent story then ultimately the majority of the market will respond to that one message.

There can only be one conclusion; that patient choice no longer truly exists. How can patients make informed decisions when only one side of the discussion is being heard?

Independence is bad for eyecare. As long as each practice fights to stay afloat on its own terms, in its own local area it will have to face the might of giant marketing machines by themselves. It’s tough now and will only get tougher in the future.

Now is not the time for independent opticians to consider everyone else to be their competitor. This is a fight for survival and in order to face the challenges before them, independent business owners will need to decide to join forces and work together to gain real influence within the optical marketplace.

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