Special Feature: Flex Success


It's not too late to boost your share of fourth-quarter spending account cheer.

When you're selling eyewear and offering eyecare, you can't count on the boost that other retailers get from the holiday shopping season.

Or can you?

Your dispensary might not be a major Christmas buying destination, but eyecare providers have their own opportunity for an end-of-year sales jolt. Consumers are often looking for a way to use flex dollars before their deadline — and you have just the solution.

"Flex spending is a significant amount of extra money to our bottom line," says Dr. Michael Rosen, an optometrist at the Eye Gallery of Scarsdale, NY. "People treat themselves to high-end products — most of it is prescription eyewear — and it feels free to them."

Eyecare products and services are a perfect way to use the money. With smart marketing, you can get your share of fourth-quarter flex-account cheer.

A quick recap for the newbies on your staff: The term "flex dollars" refers to money in a flexible spending account, or FSA, which is a tax-free vehicle attached to many employer health plans to be used for certain medical and dental expenses. About 14 million families have health FSAs, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury — and eyecare expenses are fair game for the funds.

FSA money can include up to $2,500 diverted from an employee's paychecks, along with any employer contributions. The catch is that patients forfeit any funds not used by the end of the plan year, which often runs through Dec. 31. (Some employers add a 2½-month grace period, and some allow as much as $500 to be carried over into the next plan year.)

"Use it or lose it" is the message of choice for many eyecare providers, including Dr. Tavel Family Eye Care, an Indiana optometry chain. In mid-October, the practice starts including flex-dollar reminders through every marketing and ad channel.

"We need something with a strong call to action," says Brian Coyle, creative director for Dr. Tavel. "During the holiday shopping season, the optical industry takes a back seat to traditional retailers. We need something to get traffic through our door."

Direct mail and email help target existing patients, and Coyle says the company often emphasizes buying a year's supply of contact lenses. "It's something they can come in and walk out with the same day, no appointment needed," he notes.

Flex-spending reminders could drive revenue all year, as insurers don't always follow the calendar year. But most eyecare providers concentrate their FSA marketing in the fourth quarter.

Eye 1 Unique Eyewear, an optical boutique in Cincinnati, OH, relies primarily on radio spots to get its flex-account message out, often as a tag at the end of a regular ad. "For this type of thing, we're trying to hit our customers, but also other people," says David Brown, owner of Eye 1. "Our customers know. They're not going to forget."

At the Eye Specialists Center, an ophthalmology practice in the Chicago area with an optical dispensary, flex-dollar reminders start going out on patient statements at the end of October. Reminders show up in the practice's monthly e-newsletter and signs in the office.

Julie McDade, Eye Specialists Center office manager, says the business also offers discounts on a second pair of glasses or on add-ons, such as Transitions or anti-glare lenses. (IRS regulations say prescription sunwear is an eligible FSA use, but over-the-counter sunglasses are not.)

For some practices, flex spending can total 7 to 10 percent of revenue, says Tim Merrigan, senior consultant with the Williams Group, an eyecare practice management consulting firm. After all, the consulting firm Mercer estimates that 85 percent of large U.S. employers offer FSAs.

Merrigan recommends using whatever marketing approaches typically work for your business, whether email, social media, text messages, signs and trunk shows. He's also a fan of maximizing the days and hours you're open during the holiday season — starting in late November — to give patients lots of opportunities to shop. Some practices even open their doors on New Year's Eve, he notes.

Merrigan advises targeting people who have a current prescription. "Often when you're marketing, you get people in the door and they need an exam," he says. "But you only have so many slots available, so that's a limiting factor."

Patients will likely be ready for that second pair of glasses they weren't sure they could afford earlier in the year. That could mean sunglasses, computer glasses or safety glasses. Be generous with second-pair discounts, Merrigan says. Even a 30 to 50 percent price reduction can be reasonable.

"You've paid for your staff, rent and overhead with the first pair," he says. "Really all you're paying on the second pair is the cost of goods."

FSAs used to offer even more potential for eyecare practices and other healthcare providers.

The $2,500 annual limit didn't exist before the Affordable Care Act took effect, and employers often set far higher ceilings. The change will generate $13 billion for the government between 2013 and 2019, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates.

But Rosen, of the Eye Gallery of Scarsdale, says his practice has seen no decrease in the flex dollars it receives. And he begins mentioning flexible spending as early as summer. The practice includes reminders a couple of times a month on Facebook and in an e-newsletter, sometimes as add-ons to messages about eyewear collections.

Rosen strives for "subtle but repetitive" to avoid offending his patients' sensibilities. But in-store marketing is by far the most effective approach, he says. Patients often don't realize they can use flex dollars, which are frequently accessible via a special debit card, for eyewear.

"Especially toward the end of the year, we ask every patient, 'Do you know about flexible spending? Do you have it?'" Rosen says. "The magic letters are FSA. That often prompts the person to buy the second pair of glasses right on the spot."



1. Tack it on. No need to run separate ads to remind people to use their FSAs. A mention on the end of a print ad, broadcast spot or Facebook post is often all it takes.

2. Start early. If you wait until December, people will be busy with holiday shopping and travel and might not make it in. Start earlier or mention FSA throughout the year, since some insurance plan deadlines fall at other times.

3. Market to existing patients. If the people you attract need new exams, your revenue is limited by your available exam slots. People who already have a prescription can just walk in and buy.

4. Emphasize the deadline. Some practices market effectively with a "use it or lose it" message. Consultant Tim Merrigan advises against that wording, since some carryover of funds is now possible. But the idea is the same: Tell people to spend the money while they can.

5. Talk about it. Bring up FSAs to everyone who walks in the door. If people are on the fence about purchases, you'll likely sway them to buy.

6. Push functional eyewear. Many of the patients you saw earlier in the year likely wanted an "extra" set of prescription eyewear — perhaps sunglasses or sports goggles. That second pair could be a great way to use remaining FSA money.

7. Offer discounts. Second-pair sales add to the bottom line even with big discounts. You paid for your overhead with the first set; anything else over the cost of goods is profit.

8. Extend your hours. The more you're open during the busy holiday season, the more flex dollars you stand to grab.

9. Borrow from other ECPs. Monitor social media and get more ideas in this roundup from the Optical Vision Site: invmag.us/11146.