Speaking from first-hand experience, former practice owners and sales reps lay the groundwork for how practices can maximise the relationship with their eyewear suppliers to generate the best outcome for their business and customers.
Although both relatively new to their current respective roles, Mr Dylan Oblein* and Mr Rob Boelen, have been involved in the industry long enough to speak from experience about business-to-business relationships, particularly frame suppliers.
Joining them in this conversation is Ms Lisa Wymond, herself experienced in manufacturing, importing and supplying frames and accessories to optometry practices, and Mr Aaron McColl, founder of Aaron’s Eyewear.
Oblein, business development manager at Eyecare Plus national office, is a former regional manager for George and Matilda Eyecare, and Luxottica, and a product specialist for Device Technologies. He has a handful of tips he thinks are beneficial for practice owners and optical dispensers when working with frame reps.
“As a previous practice owner and manager myself, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. My number one tip is to communicate and meet regularly,” Oblein says.
“Setting up consistent meetings, whether it be monthly, quarterly, or half yearly, whatever suits your business, depending on your volume, helps to stay on trend with the latest fashion for your patients, but also for your staff as well, because it can get stale when a product doesn’t move. It also helps solidify your relationship with your rep because it shows that you’re thinking of them, you’re giving them ‘air time’.”
Oblein says, based on what he has learned, a rep is often open to going that extra mile because you’ve reached out and made their life a little easier by instigating a meeting.
Second to regular communication is establishing mutual objectives. For practices, it’s about outlining their goals and how a particular rep can help take the business to another level. This helps reps feel like they’re ingrained in the culture of the business.
“By taking them on that journey, like a pseudo employee, they feel comfortable to communicate with all your employees, an even potentially popping in on a whim. You can put across what it is that you want to achieve, but also listen to what is going to help them achieve. They feel like they’re being heard.”
It helps to also set expectations of each other – the frame rep and the practice owner – early in the business relationship. Set boundaries, structure each visit, and discuss what services are available from the rep.
Oblein’s third tip – “probably the most basic, but most important I think, especially in independent optometry” – is to utilise frame reps’ product training and their industry knowledge.
Optometrist-owners of busy independent practices often don’t have a lot of time to spend on the retail side of the business or coaching teams on comprehensive product knowledge.
“Frame reps live and breathe their product; they know it better than anyone. They’re passionate and infectious with their specialist product knowledge. The features and benefits of a frame are key when you’re selling as a dispenser, so pick the rep’s brain, get to know those features and benefits like the back of your hand, know the product inside out,”
“The rep will feel like their time has been properly utilised and for the practice owner, they’ll get a better patient experience because the dispenser is communicating that particular product better.”
In his former role as a practice manager, when a supplier had a new range, Oblein would often organise an after-hours team event, such as a pizza night, and invite the rep to present training.
“It takes away from the normal ‘run of the mill’ of the practice owner delivering the same thing over and over again. It keeps the meeting fresh and feels like you’ve got an external vendor coming in.”
He says a rep’s industry knowledge is equally as valuable as their product knowledge.
“Reps work across all different scenarios; independents, corporates, boutique, budget, they’re seeing everything, whereas a lot of practice owners are only seeing their own four walls,” Oblein says.
“Be open to asking them for their thoughts. They’re going to give you honest feedback. It’s invaluable.”
In addition to this, Oblein recommends utilising the frame suppliers marketing assets and in-store promotions – whether it be window displays, in-store print material, or social media assets. Suppliers have access to a library of ready-made content that usually comes at little to no cost for the practice.
“If you have a strong relationship with your rep, and if you’re smart about it, you can leverage it. I’ve had practices in the past that have had 18 months’ worth of window displays booked out, all paid for by the frame supplier.”
Independent owners can use marketing assets to align their practice with a particular brand and its ethical positioning.
“If that’s something you want to align with, then utilise their marketing collateral. Independent practices don’t typically have thousands of extra dollars to spend on marketing, so utilise what suppliers can offer,” Oblein says.
Complete a performance review with your suppliers, too, just as you do your employees, he says.
“Cross check to ensure your sales metrics are the same so if there’s any anomalies you can address it. Review frames’ performance: look at what may be going well from an average selling price and try to replicate that. If you see pitfalls, work together on how that might be improved,” Oblein says.
“If there’s an area where things aren’t going well, pass it on directly in a respectful manner, not word of mouth or Chinese whispers. Pick up the phone and speak directly. And equally, pass on feedback when things are going well.”
It pays to plan
Mr Rob Boelen, who joined ProVision in February 2023 as merchandise manager, shares many of the same sentiments.
Having held management positions at Bupa, VetPartners, Medical One, and Woolworths, he has a wealth of knowledge to draw on when discussing business-to-business relationships.
Subtle mindset shifts, such as referring to suppliers as ‘partners’ is a small change that can get practice owners thinking differently, he says.
“Suppliers are key stakeholders in the success of any successful practice and should be engaged as partners who support sustainable, commercially viable options to grow the business,” he says.
“A lot of the time, especially in independent optometry, the person buying the frames, whether it’s the practice manager or a dispenser or the owner, they make the mistake of buying based on what they like and they end up with 15 frame suppliers and two ranges from each, so they’re not maximising the opportunity to form partnerships.
“Whereas, thinking through what you need in your frames range, where your gaps are, what your demographic is, who your client is, and then having three or four strong partners where you’re stocking six ranges is going to give you a lot more leverage and much stronger partnerships. ProVision is a strong advocate of doing more business with fewer supplier partners.”
By planning and carefully considering the frame range and price points across men’s, women’s and children’s eyewear, then practices can achieve better sale results and have less need for stock rotations that can potentially cause friction with some frame partners.
“The last thing you want is to be ‘that practice’ that constantly wants to rotate stock or send stale stock back in the wrong case with the wrong label, and residual glue from an adhesive label still stuck on the temple, leaving the supplier with little choice but to throw it in the bin,” Boelen says.
“If you’re going to be a good partner, and you’re going to get the most out of the relationship, planning the right range helps prevent these problems arising. There is plenty of variation in frame designs where you can stand out and be different even when using a small number of partner suppliers.”
Fostering a good business relationship with suppliers also helps practice owners stay informed about new product launches and develop sustainable methods of doing business.
“It’s important to build ‘best fit’ partnerships that are relationship-based, where the potential sell-through of product is high. This is the win/win outcome for both supplier and practice,” Boelen says.
“And in terms of point-of-sale material, in 2023, you need to think ‘How can we do this in a sustainable way? How can we promote this to our customers digitally? Do we have digital assets that we can send to our customers rather than generating paper waste?’.
“Think about how you can work with suppliers sustainably. It’s important to work together on getting better at doing digital warranties so you’re both not wasting money and resources on packaging and post, going back and forth. Suppliers are a key component of every practice’s success.”
Be fair and reasonable
There are three questions a frame supplier’s management team will typically ask when discussing a practice, Eyes Right Optical’s national brands manager Ms Lisa Wymond says.
• Are they easy to deal with?
• Do they do much business with us?
• Do they pay their account on time?
“If the answer is ‘yes’ to all three questions, a practice will be much more likely to get the best out of their supplier, providing both the practice and the patient with the best possible experience,” she explains.
Echoing earlier advice, Wymond says doing more business with fewer suppliers makes the practice a more substantial practice to the supplier.
“As a buying method, doing small amounts of business with a lot of suppliers doesn’t do anyone any favours. In the end, the practice will not be a financially significant customer to any supplier. Reducing suppliers is a global trend across the eyewear industry. Choosing quality suppliers that can cater to many of the practices needs is key,” she says.
“Practices can improve relationships with their chosen suppliers by working collaboratively with them to identify and address challenges faced by the practice and finding suitable solutions. Reducing suppliers saves the practice a huge amount of time regarding less paperwork and time spent with multiple reps from many companies. This means more time to focus on the best outcome for patients.”
To help reduce the number of suppliers, Wymond recommends finding out what other products your preferred suppliers and sales reps can offer.
“Can your preferred supplier provide a similar product to something that you are currently sourcing elsewhere? Using sales reports generated by the practice management software will help make these educated buying decisions,” she says.
Increasing spend with a supplier also brings additional opportunities for the practice and their patients. This might be in the form of extra staff training, marketing opportunities, VIP-style nights and the supplier going that extra mile for the practice and their patients.
“Seeing reps regularly will keep the best product on the shelf and relevant to the patient’s needs,” Wymond says. “It will also help grow staff’s product knowledge through training, build on dispensing confidence and strengthen the relationship with the supplier. This attention to product and service helps build patient loyalty and generates repeat business for the practice.”
Understandably, suppliers will go that extra mile for the practice that is easy to work with. And in Eyes Right Optical’s experience, business synergy is readily apparent.
“We like to keep positive, proactive and be easy to deal with. This choice is in regard to our attitude towards the people we work with and also the product and service we provide. It is obvious to us when practices also have this same ethos as the rapport between supplier, practice and patient is second to none,” Wymond says.
“You definitely do ‘get more bees with honey’. Your suppliers are a wealth of knowledge too as they see what is happening nationwide. If a practice is after some assistance or advice on practice related topics, talk to your trusted suppliers as they have seen what works and what hasn’t at practices around the country with similar demographics,” she says, echoing Oblein’s observations.
Wymond also sees mutually beneficial partnerships as the key to long-term successful business relationships, for both practice and the supplier.
“Practices that get the best out of their suppliers operate in a fair and reasonable manner. This includes treating their suppliers fairly and with respect. Examples of this are paying on time, assessing warranties fairly, treating sales team members and support staff with respect and not taking advantage of a supplier’s generosity.”
Respecting a supplier also extends to their sales rep and customer service team. Sales reps work on appointments much like practices do; everyone’s time is valuable and should be respected.
“If the practice needs to reschedule an appointment or is running late, it is best to let the sales rep know before and not when they’re walking through the door – let alone if they’ve specifically driven 10 hours interstate for a 9:00am appointment, which is unfortunately a true story,” Wymond explains.
When it comes to warranties, it pays to be fair and reasonable. Suppliers rely on practices using their common sense and judgement to do an initial assessment of a frame for a manufacturer’s warranty claim.
“The supplier will not receive a credit themselves from the manufacturer if the warranty is not a genuine claim – for example, ‘I opened the case and it was just like that’ while the frame looks like it has been stood on,” Wymond says.
“The supplier will unfortunately then bear the full cost of this ‘warranty’ from the manufacturer. Being a reliable practice where the supplier can trust your judgement is much appreciated.”
For suppliers, disingenuous warranties are one problem, not paying on time is another.
“Suppliers understand that sometimes cash flow might be tight or large purchases of equipment may have just been made. If you find yourself in this situation, before an order is placed with a supplier ask if extended payment terms are an option.
“Talk to your supplier and work something out that is fair and reasonable for all. Not paying on time will quickly see relationships deteriorate.”
But, by working together, Wymond knows from experience that practices and suppliers can build strong and mutually beneficial partnerships that deliver the best possible experience for their patients.
Stock rotation has become commonplace
Managing director of Aaron’s Eyewear, Mr Aaron McColl, has witnessed stock rotation become the norm within the industry, but is concerned it is being taken for granted.
“The concept of stock rotation was developed about 15 years ago as a way for wholesalers to get new products in store and give practices an opportunity to give back slower moving stock,” McColl says.
But he has grown uneasy at a prevailing attitude among some practices who feel they can send back any unmoving or slow-moving stock, no matter how old – sometimes even two- or three-years-old.
To help alleviate the cost burden that places on small businesses like Aaron’s Eyewear, McColl introduced a three-to-one rotation policy.
“If a practice wants to send back one frame, they need to buy three from me. It needs to be within 12 months from the date of original purchase and be in perfectly saleable condition. That way, I have an opportunity to resell current season stock and mitigate the cost of potentially writing off returned stock,” he says.
McColl receives frames returned in poor condition, under the guise of stock rotation, that are scratched, dirty, showing residual glue from labels, and nose pads stained by make-up.
“We’re giving the practice an opportunity to recoup their loss, because they haven’t been able to sell the product. But when we raise the issue of the poor condition stock is returned in, they can at times become unreasonably difficult,” McColl says.
Aaron’s Eyewear is a preferred supplier to ProVision and Eyecare Plus, and both groups accept his three-to-one stock rotation policy.
“Both groups are professionally minded and commercially focused. They believe and demonstrate their desire to have a mutually beneficial partnership with their suppliers by treating us professionally and fairly.”
McColl says small group or single location practices wanting a one-to-one rotation policy is unreasonable, but also unsustainable and is an issue the industry needs to shine a light on.
“There are not as many independent wholesalers around anymore and some of the smaller players struggle, because they’re trying to appease these demands.”
McColl sees the lack of cohesion among the frame wholesalers as an opportunity for change and hopes certain standards and business practices are adopted by all suppliers, presenting a unified voice.
“I love this industry and I love my customers but it’s time for the frame suppliers to voice what we find acceptable. I call on my colleagues to get together and discuss what we will accept or not from our retail customers, collectively,” McColl adds.
*Mr Dylan Oblein has since left Eyecare Plus.