As the price of everything from fuel to groceries continues to rise, the optical industry is faced with the challenge of persuading consumers that premium spectacle lenses and treatments still represent a good value. The key question is whether most patients are willing to pay more for a top-quality lens or a prestigious brand, or would they rather opt for less expensive alternatives. To find out, I asked several eyecare practices to share their strategies for growing their premium lens business in an increasingly tough market.

Dr. Elliot Klonsky, an optometrist from Crofton, Md. defines premium eyewear as, “lenses and treatments that go beyond the patient’s expectations by providing exceptional performance in vision, comfort and durability.” Compared to a year ago, most practices I spoke with had not experienced a decline in the percentage of premium lenses sold. In fact, many of them had seen an uptick in sales. “Our premium lens sales are up about 5 percent,” says Dr. Klonsky. “We are selling about 50 percent more Transitions and have also experienced an increase in AR and Trivex.”

Kennedy Vision Health Center in Plymouth, Minn. experienced a similar growth in premium lens sales. Office manager Sherry Renne notes that the practice has seen a 9 percent increase in AR lens sales and an 8 percent increase in high-index lenses. Renne attributes the growth to the staff ’s ability to use premium products to enhance the personalized care for which Kennedy Vision Health Center is known.

“We strive to educate patients more about the benefits of premium eyewear to justify the cost,” says Renne. Patient education is not only done by the opticians, but also by the doctors. All the doctors at Kennedy Vision prescribe premium lenses and treatments as needed by the patients. “People are holding on to their money and we want them to feel like they have received everything we prescribed for them.”

The only negative trend the practices noticed was an increase in the number of people wanting to postpone their eyewear purchases if they hadn’t experienced a big change in their prescription. Kristin Giles, office manager at Coronado Eye Care in Coronado, Calif. observes, “In the past, patients used to select a new pair of eyewear each year because they wanted a new look or a style change. This year, approximately 45 percent of patients who experience no change have elected not to purchase new eyewear.”

To combat this problem, Giles recommends the doctor walk the patient into the dispensary after the examination and introduce them to the optician. After informing patients of the benefits of owning a new frame and lenses, and trying a few pair on, many of them justify the purchase of a new pair, Giles notes.

“Before the patient goes into the exam room with the doctor, I think about one pair of glasses that would look great on them,” says Giles. “When they come out, I have that pair on the table waiting for them to try on. I let them know I thought of that frame for them while they were in the exam room.” While they do not always purchase the pre-selected frame, this process aids Giles in introducing the frame selection process. “After they try on one pair, they almost always try on a second and third. This has noticeably helped our sales.”

When a prescription change is necessary and budgets are tight, practices reported many of their patients chose to cut corners on the frame instead of the lenses. “When budget is an issue to our patients we recommend they keep the same frame rather than compromise on their lenses,” says Dr. Klonsky. “We always keep in mind that spectacles are foremost a medical device, and optimal vision comes first.”

Jennifer Branning, OD and her office manager, Lis Forner from West Shore Eye Care in Ludington, Mich. agree with Dr. Klonsky. “Even with our rising costs, we chose to keep our lens pricing stable,” says Dr. Branning. “Instead, we chose to adjust our frame pricing to accommodate some of the different cost increases. We would rather a patient choose a less expensive frame than skimp on their lenses.”

Of the practices interviewed, only half of them have raised their prices this year. However, all of them have incorporated different strategies to deal with rising costs while continuing to provide the same high level of patient care. “Costs will continue to rise and so will the prices of everyday items,” says Giles. “For this reason, it’s important to have a strategy or plan of action for our practice to stay ahead.” Giles turned to her optical laboratory for help.

Coronado Eye Care believes in doing work with an outside optical laboratory and insists on providing patients with the most advanced lens products. “Instead of adding new equipment to do edging and surfacing in-house, we have chosen to partner more with our laboratories who offer incentive programs,” says Giles. “The incentive programs are designed around premium products we are already recommending to our patients. These programs help us with the rising costs.”

After adjusting its prices only slightly, Kennedy Vision Health Center also adjusted the staff’s dispensing and presentation techniques to add increased value to the patient’s new eyewear. “We present each new pair of eyewear in a tray with an eyeglass cleaner and a cloth,” Renne explains. “We feel this helps us stand out by making the eyewear purchase meaningful to the patient.” The staff is also trained to provide the patient with product brochures and information along with their receipt.

In comparison, West Shore Eye Care chose not to increase their prices. “Given the challenges of the Michigan economy, we feel quite fortunate our sales have remained stable,” says Forner. Instead, they have chosen to modify their office hours. “Maintaining the same size staff, we have adjusted our hours of operation from five days down to four days with extended service hours,” she adds. “This has enabled us to provide the same level of service our patients deserve while avoiding a price increase.”

Dr. Klonsky has also avoided a price increase and relies on his well-trained, experienced opticians to “up their game” when times are tough. “The most important strategy we embrace is to always present lens options as solutions to problems or benefits versus features, and to recommend these opt ions at every single presentation,” says Dr. Klonsky. “How many of us skip talking about the benefits of anti-reflective treatments for children or don’t offer progressive lenses to the older multifocal patient?” By training his staff to consistently present Transitions lenses to every patient, he increased the practice sales by 50 percent.

In addition to being knowledgeable about new products, Dr. Klonsky’s staff is also trained to maximize patient’s managed vision care plans. He believes managed care has helped with premium lens sales. “Our staff is trained to explain insurance benefits not as limits, but as contributions,” he says. “It’s amazing how many patients spend significantly over allowances when presented wit h the option of buying the best for ‘bargain’ prices.”

The final strategy includes the recommendation of premium lenses as simplified packages. Names of packages range from “good, better and best” to “standard, advanced and premier.” The most common bottom level package included a scratch-resistant treatment and plastic lenses. As packages increased in price, anti-reflective treatments, as well as thinner, lighter, more impact-resistant lens materials were introduced.

At Coronado Eye Care, Giles trains her staff to inform the patient of the benefits of the lens package instead of explaining each lens enhancement separately. This strategy has led to over 90 percent AR usage among patients.

“After explaining all of the benefits of the eyewear to the patient, I provide them with one total, not a breakout of all the lens options included,” Giles explains. “If the patient feels it’s too expensive, we drop down to the next package as a less expensive option.”

As economic conditions become more difficult, eyeglass wearers are carefully scrutinizing each purchase. That’s why having a well-trained staff makes the crucial difference when selling premium lenses, as these practices attest. A skilled optician, trained to have exceptional communication skills, has never been more important to a practice to help communicate the benefits of premium lenses to patients.

Samantha Toth is president of Innereactive Media in Grand Rapids, Mich. a marketing communications firm that services the optical industry.