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The Pandemic

For all the uncertainty it has caused, by and large eyecare businesses are emerging from COVID-19’s great disruption with leaner, more efficient operations and a newfound sense of resilience.

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10. What service, line or category has been your “hero” over the last 18 months?

As the diversity in the selected responses below shows, ECPs leaned on their individual strengths to get through the pandemic. For every business that shouted out its “out of pocket” clientele, another thanked Medicaid or VSP clients. While many pointed to the medical side of the business in general, nearly as many cited simply “optical” or “selling glasses”. But some industry-wide workhorses did emerge. Among the offerings most consistently singled out as doing the heavy lifting for the bottom line during the pandemic were: contact lens sales; focusing on customer service; having a lab and doing in-house edging and repairs; providing home delivery; and offering vision therapy and other specialty services including dry eye clinics and myopia management.

  • “Medicaid managed care glasses and exams.”
  • “Marlo … was a big help.”
  • “Our medical patients…really are our bread and butter.”
  • “Having a full and diverse optical retail side.”
  • “Staying open!”
  • “Luxury and artisan frames. Nothing like watching people spend their stimulus dollars on a sweet pair of glasses that makes them smile.”
  • “Great service continues to drive word of mouth and top any product we could offer.”

11. How close did you go to closing down during the pandemic?

We were on the brink
10%
3 more months and it would have been curtains
14%
Perhaps if it had dragged on another 6 months or more
28%
It was never an issue
48%
COMMENT: Thankfully, for almost half of our respondents the pandemic never caused them to consider having to permanently close. Some never shut down; others prepared for any contingency. “I’ve never lived beyond my means so there were no crazy payments to keep up with.” “Our owner had many contingencies in place and we all had roles to fill.” Many tackled the necessary practicalities. “Our rent was waived so a major expense wasn’t looming over our head when we were closed.” “We sat down in the first week and outlined expenses and money on hand. That really helped set our mind on getting through the shutdown, then we applied for grants and the PPP.”Others got super creative to keep any sort of business going. “We cut costs and kept cash flow going through social media sales and one-on-one eyewear selections.” “We just kept on trucking. I was running around taking photos of the town and emailing my customers. I was coming up with ideas on how to keep people spending money with us. I tried to keep being creative and playing off any of the humor of the pandemic.”
Had shutdowns gone on much longer many respondents mentioned retiring, and a few are still not feeling on solid footing. “It isn’t over, I’m still unsure.”

12. What was the main thing that helped you get through the pandemic?

The Big Survey 2021: The Pandemic

13. How were sales last year versus 2019 (pre-pandemic)?

The Big Survey 2021: The Pandemic

COMMENT: There was a point around April 2020, shortly after the pandemic erupted and lockdowns were imposed around the country, when one in four of our survey respondents told us they didn’t think they’d be able to last another three months. Nearly a year and a half later, and many ECPs are enjoying some of their strongest sales ever. Forty percent of the independent ECPs in our survey posted sales gains in 2020, and 20 percent believe 2021 will be their best year ever.

14. From a business point of view, has the pandemic made you …

Bigger (it was an opportunity to expand)
5%
Stronger/more resilient (more efficient, less indebted, etc)
44%
Weaker
12%
ust different. We reinvented ourselves.
22%
Just the same. Nothing changed really.
17%

15. Gwyneth Paltrow broke down and ate bread during quarantine. What was your lowest point?

  • “Video games until 4 a.m.!”
  • “Lots of bourbon.”
  • “We won’t talk about how long my leg hair was…”
  • “Texting with an ex who I knew wanted an affair.”
  • “‘Tiger King.’”
  • “Working in my PJs.”
  • “Started wearing scrubs and I stopped wearing a real bra.”
  • “Watching optical videos on YouTube.”
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16. Did the pandemic ever prompt you to think you should get out of the eyecare business or make another big change to your professional life?

The Big Survey 2021: The Pandemic

COMMENT: The most striking figure here may be that 21%: For a significant number of ECPs, the pandemic prompted serious thoughts of professional change. “Would love to have more flexibility, be able to work from home. Being a business owner may not be worth all the gray hairs,” one told us. For another, it confirmed the wisdom of not putting all your eggs in one basket. “I’m already involved in commercial and residential real estate, as well as farming, so it strengthened my thoughts of being diversified.” Extra time gave some the opportunity to properly pursue other interests. “I used the extra free time in the evenings working on an art business. At some point I hope to make that my livelihood,” wrote one respondent.
A less-considered impact of the pandemic on business owners has been coping with the recovery. “Yes,” commented one respondent on the possibility of quitting. “Only because of the burnout associated with the increase in business after we reopened that never seemed to stop. Great for our books, horrible for my sanity.” For the majority, of course, the future still lies within the industry, but many admit to a new sense of perspective: “I do feel like there’s a grim future for optical if we don’t continue to reinvent ourselves and prove our worth to our patients,” said one.

17. Did the break in routine cause you to learn something new or a more efficient way of doing something?

After 18 months of pandemic conditions, eyecare businesses are leaner and a whole lot cleaner. They are far more confident about offering online sales and services, willing to explore new opportunities like consignment, wholesale and telemedicine, and increasingly upgrading to all-digital/EMR file systems. They’ve also recognized the merits of letting the optician do the browsing, gotten creative when it comes to getting eyewear into customers’ hands, and wholeheartedly embraced the appointment-only optical model. Crucially, they’ve recognized that if it’s done right, having fewer employees, opening hours and even patients/customers can actually benefit the bottom line.

  • “Yes! We are best when everything is done by appointment. We now have an online store. Curbside and local delivery are still a big thing.”
  • “We did not need all the employees we had.”
  • “Taking more time off did not hurt business much.”
  • “Cross training everyone made a huge difference.”
  • “We now have a master spreadsheet with stocking goals for each brand/manufacturer. Rep visits are smoother, inventory fresher, loving it.”
  • “Opticians shopping for the patient saved a lot of time.”
  • “Routine sanitation.”
  • “We are transitioning to all digital files. Less clutter.”

18. Briefly, what was the main business takeaway for you from the last 18 months?

COVID hammered home some business truths. ECPs share what they learned.

  • “Big inventory is overrated.”
  • “Online, online, online.”
  • “Service, service, service. Everything else is a distraction.”
  • “Changing hours and procedures didn’t hurt business.”
  • “Temporary stoppage creates increased demand. The business came back.”
  • “Carry less debt and control buying.”
  • “Specialty care is a necessity.”
  • “Have a buffer in your business account of at least three months.”
  • “Good staff are hard to find. Do what you can to keep them!”
  • “Work smarter not harder.”
  • “People need their eyecare!”
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19. Which area of expenses that you may have cut down on during the pandemic has been least missed?

The Big Survey 2021: The Pandemic

20. Have you been vaccinated?

The Big Survey 2021: The Pandemic

COMMENT: The majority of respondents have been vaccinated and believe it is important to end the pandemic, but it is still a hot button topic.Many responses fell in the 100% support category… “I am part of the Moderna study.” “Everyone in healthcare should be vaccinated as soon as possible.”A few of our vaccinated respondents are unsure of the booster shots. “I won’t get the booster though. We’re not regulating it with our employees.” Some are still planning on it or are medically unable.
Vaccine requirements – pro and con – also came up. “It is not required for my staff, half of them are not.” “We also require all patients/customers to provide proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test to enter, doors locked.”
Unvaccinated folks weighed in too. “In our great state, we are allowed to make our own health decisions and there is not enough information to prove to me that it will not cause other, or worse, health issues.”
And a few people — despite the responses being anonymous – were just ticked that we even asked the question. “Private health information not to be disclosed.” “Don’t discuss my healthcare in any shape or form with anyone.” “What business is it of yours? Have you had herpes?”

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at [email protected].

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