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EVERY YEAR IT seems to come around just a little bit sooner. Yes, the year-end holiday season is almost upon us, bringing with it special demands on your inventory, marketing, staffing, scheduling, and interior décor, not to mention your family life and general sanity.

Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations and marketing, end-of-year sales and gift certificate promotions (according to a National Retail Federation survey, 40% of shoppers start gift-buying before Halloween) — it’s all kicking off. And of course there are those all-important flex dollars. At some practices this can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, typically spent in the last two weeks of the year. Those customers need reminding, and this needs to be the best-planned, tightest-scheduled period in your calendar.

We’re sure you trust in your team, and this may not be your first year-end rodeo. But the goal shouldn’t be just to get through the next few months; you need a strategy to make the most of them. We turned to six ECPs to give us an overview of their holiday prep and how they approach the key tasks, and asked our resident optical planning expert, Optician Now founder Carissa Dunphy, ABOC, to put together a handy two-page checklist you can tear out or download to get you holiday-ready.

They say success is where preparation and opportunity meet. The next few months present you with an opportunity — the rest is up to you!

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Annette Prevaux
The Visionary, Allen Park, MI

Annette Prevaux admits to working best under pressure — “most of it self-inflicted” — but she tries to get social media posts, newsletters and texts out by October prompting The Visionary’s patients to use their expiring benefits and flex spending dollars. Reminders to purchase gift certificates and stocking stuffers go out in November, urging customers to buy them for “those stubborn relatives who won’t take care of themselves otherwise. Who needs more dish towels and hankies?” Prevaux prints the gift certificates herself and signage is posted letting folks know they’re available.

It’s also a great time “to mark down frames that haven’t sold or use as free frames for second-pair sales. We try not to buy during the last fiscal quarter,” she adds.

START NOW! Holiday Season Planning Should Be In Full Swing: Here’s How

Cleverly, Prevaux’s accountant persuaded her to adopt a fiscal year ending March, so she wouldn’t ruin her holidays doing inventory, tax returns, etc. “Best advice ever!” she says.

Prevaux’s mind is on her staff as much as her customers. “Planning our company dinner and bonuses is a big one. I spoil my staff, they spoil me,” she says. “Time to show appreciation for the hard work.” While no one on the team takes vacation during the end-of-year holidays, Prevaux makes sure everyone can make key family events like concerts, plays and gatherings. “It is about balance of work and family life with me. We are all cross-trained so nothing changes when someone is out.”

As a 40-year optician, Prevaux has seen her share of holiday seasons come and go. So what is this industry veteran’s best advice? “Tighten your seatbelts, throw your hands in the air and scream while you ride the roller coaster!”

Nikki Griffin
EyeStyles Optical and Boutique, St. Paul, MN

As she heads into the home stretch on the calendar, Nikki Griffin’s thoughts turn to holding a clearance sale to reduce inventory for the end of the year. She’s also thinking about ways to spread out the flex spending and insurance panic over the last quarter of the year, rather than the last month, as well as planning for her annual trunk show, a process that starts as early as August.

“We typically plan ahead by booking our rep by early September, then planning a social media campaign. Postcard mailers will go out in October, and emails with ‘save the date’ and reminders will also start to go out in October for a November show.” Other entertainments during the trunk show such as live artist painting and live music and local wine tastings also need to be lined up.

START NOW! Holiday Season Planning Should Be In Full Swing: Here’s How

On the staffing front, Griffin makes sure that everyone gets their share of family time over the holidays by closing the store over those holiday weekends.

“The trunk show and flex spending season will offer plenty of opportunity to sell eyewear, so balance is most important to get through the season,” she says. “This time of year is actually easier for me because of the family schedules for my staff so I’m lucky there!”

Griffin urges ECPs who struggle with year-end chaos to “try to spread out the madness, plan way ahead and build an email list. Make decorating the store a party after hours for the staff, and nail down your holiday hours—who is working, and make it fair for everyone.”

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Pam Peters
Midwest Eye, Downers Grove, IL

“Be prepared!” is practice manager Pam Peters’ mantra heading into the holiday season at Midwest Eye in Downers Grove, IL. This starts with ordering frames in November. “We purchase extra frames for the holidays so that we have stock for the frame boards and do not need to reorder until after inventory in January,” says Peters.

Another yearly ritual is the annual themed staff photo shoot, which they try to get done in early December, as the photo plays a key role in holiday marketing, being sent to patients via emails and posted on social media (as well as framed and displayed prominently in the store).

Aside from those long-term tasks, Peters believes the most crucial planning during the busy year-end period is the kind that allows you to stay flexible on a daily basis. “Between the holidays, insurance benefits rolling over and FSA benefits that need to be used, patients are looking for appointments,” says Peters. “Make sure you can accommodate them and utilize a waiting list for any patients who are willing to come in sooner than their scheduled appointment or just need to come in so that you can hopefully fill any cancellations,” she advises. The team also makes sure all insurance information/eligibility/authorizations are ready for the day — and if a patient is not eligible for materials or only partially eligible, lets them know in case they opt not to purchase at that time. “RevolutionEHR has a waiting list at the top of the schedule. This allows us to add patients, detailing dates, time and need. Any time we have an opening, we are able to check for a patient that might fill the slot.”

For holiday decorations, the practice has a few tried and true — and very fun — favorites. “We don’t go too crazy, we put a tree up for patients to ‘decorate’ with glasses they donate. The doctors take these glasses on mission trips to Honduras. We have ribbon at the front so that they can make a bow or loop to hang them from the tree.” A few years ago, they gave each staff member a discontinued pair of glasses and had an “ugly Christmas glasses contest.”

In December, Midwest Eye limits the number of days staff can take off. They do close for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (both paid holidays) and staff still have a day off during the week. But the team’s contribution is always uppermost in Peters’ mind. “Appreciate your staff,” she says. “If you have an overwhelming schedule, maybe have some breakfast or lunch brought in, or have a rep bring it in. Take some time to celebrate the season however you celebrate: dinner out, staff party in the office, some occasion or event for everyone to enjoy and enjoy each other.”

Pablo Mercado
Highland Eye Boutique, Atlanta, GA

Pablo Mercado ranks his holiday-prep priorities as follows: 1.) Have the personnel ready to help patients with their needs; 2.) Have a product mix that will help patients get the eyewear they need and want; and 3.) Everything else.

At Highland Eye Boutique, planning is a year-round process. “I like to call it O.P.E.R.A. — Organize, Prioritize, Execute, Refine and Assess. We organize the tasks and/or events … place the task list in order of priority, start executing the tasks as they become due in the plan, refine the steps that we’re taking as we go… and finally assess after the event what we did well, what we did good but needs a little adjustment … and what was a mistake.”

Heading into the end of the year, he emphasizes three tasks: 1.) Make sure everyone at the office is ready in terms of equipment, products and training to be able to help patients independently; 2.) Make sure inventory orders are placed early and being tracked so we don’t end up doing inventory functions when we should be taking care of patients; and 3.) (Given that Highland’s marketing is strictly word of mouth) Fine tune interactions with patients to reflect the season.

Mercado stresses the importance of building flexibility into planning in case “things go sideways.” As a small office, they do not have the luxury of losing people for any reason. “We all have our PTO outside of the window of the holidays, and we try to keep distractions to a minimum, knowing full well that Murphy is lurking…”

He says it’s important when planning to “involve your people. Allow them to offer suggestions that you may have not thought about, but may be the stroke of genius that makes your office shine in terms of patient satisfaction and sales.” Finally, remember: It’s the holidays! “As the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Let that thought permeate everything you do! Wear festive clothes, hats, and decorate the office so it looks professional, yet warm and inviting. Have an Ugly Sweater or Holiday Hat Day. Wear Santa beards, do whatever you need to do within the realm of sanity to live the spirit of the season, and to spread that feeling with everyone that comes into your office.”

Amie Robinson
Spring Hill Eyecare, Spring Hill, TN

Sometimes what’s required when the holidays roll around is a healthy dose of perspective. At Spring Hill Eyecare, optical manager Amie Robinson’s top priority for the season is simple: “Keeping the holidays happy. The key to achieving truly ‘happy’ holidays is balance. We are very aware our staff have many personal/family obligations during the holidays and take care to not to infringe upon too much of their personal time. Our office celebration is often during business hours.”

Practice administrator Melanie Jenkins is great about handing out small surprises to her colleagues. One staff favorite that helps with difficult patient situations is a small bag of gingerbread men cookies with a funny note instructing them to “bite their head off when feeling frustrated”—because, as Robinson observes, “biting patients is frowned upon.”

In some ways, Robinson is a natural when it comes to planning: “I am always several months ahead, it is just who I am. I like numbers, reports and S.O.P.s. I keep detailed counts on frame sales by brand and orders are based on projected sales, not a preset threshold. This system works well to ensure we have what our patients want when they want them, and eliminates unnecessary back stock.”

START NOW! Holiday Season Planning Should Be In Full Swing: Here’s How

But it’s not a solo act, and the best way to prepare for any busy time, she says, is a well-trained staff. “Give them the education and the tools to do their job, then trust them.” While staff are encouraged not to take vacation during the holidays, “inevitably a few will need time off to visit family, and that is okay.”

Robinson also advises keeping small counter cards in the gallery to remind patients that gift certificates are available — and that sunglasses make great stocking stuffers.

If you’re thinking of getting involved in year-end community activities, she says, look for opportunities to play off other events. “When our office was on the Christmas Parade route, we would invite our patients to park in our lot, sit on our lawn, then served them hot chocolate and turned on snow machines. It was a huge hit!” Don’t forget hiring a Santa for pictures with kids brings in a captive audience to talk to about children’s vision needs. “Bonus points to the staff that come dressed as elves!” Hire a Santa right after Thanksgiving, she says. Be creative with a backdrop, pick up some candy canes to hand out and blast an invite on social media. “You’d be amazed at the response!”

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Sophia Pray
Huntley Eye Care, Huntley, IL

At Huntley Eye Care, planning begins in late summer for a fall newsletter reminding patients that remaining health spending funds need to be used, and to come in if they haven’t had their annual exam. “We will start planning our social media so our posts are scheduled, and we’ve already started purchasing holiday decor,” office manager Sophia Pray told INVISION in August. “Our patients love when we decorate our office for the holidays.”

The reminders are particularly aimed at patients they haven’t seen for the year. “We try and get them to come in early before the end-of-year rush,” Pray says. “We also ensure that we are properly staffed to handle our extra busy times. We currently have a part time additional staff member that will help more when needed.”

Aside from making sure all social media posts are created and scheduled, before the holiday season begins in earnest the doctor takes an extra day off and staff use the time to do a full inventory. “I’ve already been meeting with reps to ensure we have enough frames and don’t run out of popular styles,” she says.

START NOW! Holiday Season Planning Should Be In Full Swing: Here’s How

The Huntley Eye Care team are well on top of their decorating game, changing it through the year for every holiday. Most recently they started to paint their front windows, a move Pray describes as “A huge success. We gained a lot of business and will continue to change it for every season. Our part-time person has a passion for art and loves doing this extra task, which really helps us out. She’s also in charge of buying cute decor to hang up around the office for each holiday.”

Pray’s main advice for the season is to be prepared, check your inventory and get rid of non-selling eyewear. “Order new styles, colors and shapes that you haven’t tried in the past. Make sure your frame board is fully stocked so you don’t miss out on a sale because you didn’t have something they liked,” she says. “Start prepping now for the holidays so you aren’t scrambling to get things done when it’s busy. Schedule rep appointments if needed, buy any decor before all the good stuff is sold out and schedule social media posts so you don’t forget.”

DOWNLOAD THE HOLIDAY CHECKLIST HERE!

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at heath@smartworkmedia.com.

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