Lens Choices

Package Deal

Call it the “When-in-Rome” debate of optical dispensing: Can and should independent optical dispensaries package frame and lens products together—as one branded product, sold at one price—as chain retailers have done for years?

Certainly some chain stores have found success with the strategy. But is adopting a sales technique associated with chain competitors a savvy move or a compromise that independents such as Chet Steinmetz, OD, owner of Visual Effects in Chicago, have “never given a second thought” because, as some independents believe, it cheapens their service and expertise?

Chain Reactions
Several of the nation’s largest—including LensCrafters and Pearle Vision Centers—market generic “complete eyewear” packages at preset prices (usually around $99). In general, these packages offer patients several choices in frames styles and brands, with single-vision plastic lenses.

Eye Care Centers of America (ECCA), which has more than 350 stores nationwide, packages frame and lens options at price points starting as low as $99 for two complete pairs of eyeglasses. This base-level package includes several frame options and single-vision plastic lenses with factory-applied scratch coating. According to ECCA executive vice president George Gebhardt, patients can “trade-up” to higher price points by selecting different frame and lens options, such as high-end frames, high-index plastic lenses, progressive lenses or anti-reflective lenses. Gebhardt says ECCA adopted this packaging strategy in late 2001, in response to the downturn in the economy. ECCA’s priced-based packages are not branded.

“We market to what we believe consumers respond to,” explains Gebhardt. “Today’s consumer is very value conscious. We believe our approach gives them what they want. If they want to pay more, they can, but they’ll know exactly how much they’ll be paying for those add-ons.”

For Eyes, a chain with 120 stores, markets a package it calls “The Works” with many of its more popular low- to mid-priced frame styles. These frames are sold at prices that include a plastic, single-vision lens, with the option of a free fashion or sun tint. And several other chain retailers—including US Vision and America’s Best (with its KidsSport package)—have been successful at packaging children’s frames and lenses together.

Independent Thinking
Independents’ forays into the frame and lens packaging arena have been as varied as the dispensaries themselves. Some have focused on differentiation, while others have concentrated on competition.

A toney optical shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, for example, for years offered customers a “luxury package” featuring high-end frames from Cartier fitted with ultra high-index glass AR lenses. To add more luster to the product packaging, the shop displayed the packaged products in a jewelry case located at the center of the dispensing area. Just a few blocks south, meanwhile, Eye Associates, a group practice owned by Steve D. Rubinstein, OD, offers only what the optometrist refers to as “the $99 Special”—a frame and plastic single-vision lens. Dr. Rubinstein says the package has helped improve sales in the dispensary by “keeping the low-end buyer around”—and away from nearby chain stores such as Cohen’s Fashion Optical. He adds that the practice is exploring other packaging options through its wholesale lab.

Indeed, labs—at least those distributing both frames and lenses—have historically encouraged frame and lens packaging efforts at the independent level. Essilor Laboratories of America (ELOA), has an extensive frame and lens packaging program for its independent customers called “LifeStyle.” The program started in 2001 with “Kids Tough,” which features ELOA’s LiteStyle polycarbonate lenses (with TD2 scratch-resistant coating) and several popular children’s frame lines. It has since expanded to include several frame lens package options (from sports to rimless) for teens and adults. According to Bob Colucci, senior vice president at ELOA, these programs developed because “our sales organization saw that the premium package concept appealed to doctors.” ELOA’s package programs are supported by point-of-purchase material developed by the company.

“Our patients like the convenience of these packages,” notes Brian Horsch, OD, of The Eye Doctors, an optometric group practice based in Topeka, Kan. and an ELOA customer who has been selling the packaged products for more than a year. “I would never do a ‘two-for-one’ program. That’s why this package approach appeals to me. These are premium products. Our success with this has caused us to revamp our whole philosophy and gear more toward high-end patients.”

On Your Own
Packaging isn’t for every independent optical shop and optometric dispensary. “I have to make the talk about lenses a separate part of the fitting process,” notes Dr. Steinmetz. “How can I price out a package without knowing what’s best for a specific patient.”

However, more and more of Dr. Steinmetz’s colleagues seem to be embracing the concept. According to 20/20’s Rx Lens Report 2001 (the last 20/20 survey to ask independents about packaging), more than 40 percent say they package price frame and lenses together. How are they doing it?

The Frame Factor—Packaging frame and lens products together begins at the frame. Rank the frame brands and styles you dispense in terms of sales (i.e., popularity with patients). See how that fits in with your dispensary’s philosophy. If, for example, you want your optical to appeal more to high-end customers but you sell relatively few high-end frames, base your packages around more expensive frames. Package the product categories where you want to increase sales.

Looking at Lenses—Keep the lens side of the package program simple and include plenty of premium options. Again, if you are looking to appeal to higher-paying customers, start out with a base package that includes, say, polycarbonate lenses; the upper level of this program might be ultra high-index AR plastic lenses. Conversely, a dispensary looking to create more options for lower-end customers might have a base package of conventional plastic lenses and an “upper level” package featuring polycarbonate.

Child’s Play—If the chains can successfully package frames and lenses for kids, so can independent dispensaries. On the lens side, of course, polycarbonate is a must. In terms of frames, stay on top of trends and select popular kids’ frame brands fitting into three distinct price points (i.e., low, middle and high). Be sure to brand the package in such a way that is appealing to both parents and their kids.

Sun Block—Most dispensaries want to increase second-pair sales. Try packaging prescription polarized lenses with popular sunglass styles and offering them at a discount for patients who purchase a clear pair.

These approaches have worked for many chains and independents alike. But at least one independent cautions his colleagues to remember what separates their shops from larger retail operations.

“When we began using brand names, we thought that alone would drive sales,” says Dr. Horsch. “But we soon realized while that might be attractive to some patients, most were looking to us to educate them on what they were really buying, what these eyeglasses would do for their vision. More than anything else, we realized it was just as important for us to brand ourselves as the experts.”