Business, Company, Feature, Report

No boundaries: Purchasing in a pandemic

Opening a greenfield practice during a pandemic in Australia’s hardest-hit city has thrown up its challenges, especially when it comes to purchasing big ticket items. But DR JAYSON STONE found a way thanks to the efforts of a major supplier.

Optometrist Dr Jayson Stone has just embarked on the biggest gamble of his career.

After almost 18 years in the optical industry, this month he opens a new practice – Seekers Optical – in Gertrude Street; an iconic strip brimming with bars, boutiques and galleries that’s a microcosm of the trendy inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.

For Stone, who became an optical dispenser in 2003 before completing his training as an optometrist in 2016, this is his first incursion into business ownership, never mind the fact he is establishing a greenfield practice amid Australia’s first recession in almost three decades.

There is a lot to think about. He’s secured a supreme piece of real estate, arranged the finance and hired two optical dispensers. He’s also sourced his lenses and frame ranges and set aside a substantial marketing fund to announce his arrival.

But Stone is largely pinning the business’s future success on two aspects: the practice’s aesthetic and advanced diagnostic equipment.

“I’ve been an optometrist now for almost five years across both corporate and independent, but in my time, I have found independents have fallen behind with their interior design and the diagnostic equipment because the costs are so great,” he says.

Topcon Maestro2 OCT machine.

“So, I decided to open my own practice and we have got a local well- known architectural firm, Flack Studio, doing the fit out and interior so that it looks like a global store. We’re also backing it with a large marketing budget and filling it with the most advanced diagnostic equipment so we can offer the best to our patients.”

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown many obstacles in the way of business owners. For Stone, two waves of restrictions in Melbourne thwarted his ability to conduct all-important face-to-face meetings with architects, builders and suppliers.

As a result, he faced the daunting prospect of purchasing equipment – his largest investment – that he couldn’t see or trial in-person. His extensive wish-list included a chair and stand, digital phoropter, Topcon Maestro2 OCT machine, slit lamp with retinal imaging, visual fields analyser, vertometer, autorefractor and keratometer.

“An optometrist is only as good as their tools, without them we’ve got nothing to diagnose with, so for me it’s important to get it right,” Stone says.

After contacting several companies, it was a phone call from Mr Joe Way at Device Technologies in Sydney that quelled anxieties he had about the process.

“From each of the suppliers I wanted to know the make and model they could supply, rough costing, time to deliver and time for installation. By then we were in lockdown and I received some emailed responses, but Device Technologies rang me, and their approach seemed the most holistic,” he says.

A series of webinar and Zoom meetings followed where Stone was systematically shown each piece of equipment followed by demonstrations. Additional meetings were held at later dates as more questions cropped up.

“I’m also familiar with the Topcon brand – which is very reputable – and have used some of it over the years, so not only were they providing me with the best service online, but some of their equipment was the best available,” he says. “Even though I’m the optometrist I’m not necessarily the only person using this equipment, sometimes you’ll have dispensing staff taking measurements and scans, so for them to be able to demonstrate the ease-of-use was really important to me as well.”

Overhauling client interactions 

The Australian headquarters of Device Technologies is located in the Sydney suburb of Belrose, an approximate 35-minute drive north from the CBD into the North Beaches Local Government Area.

There, ophthalmic diagnostics product manager Mr Angus Hatfield-Smith says one of the company’s greatest assets is its 144sqm showroom where the majority of its equipment has been assembled and configured for live scenario use.

Prior to the pandemic, eyecare professionals like Stone would visit from interstate to meet the sales reps and give the equipment a thorough workout.

Device Technologies’ showroom is located at the company’s Sydney headquarters.

“We are very lucky to have our showroom, it provides potential customers a unique opportunity to use the equipment we provide, which often will remain part of their clinic for decades to come,” Hatfield-Smith explains.

“It’s been well received by customers who can come in to see, touch and feel the equipment to get a comprehensive understanding for what they’re potentially going to spend a lot of money on. It’s equipment they’re going to have for the next 20 years, so it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting.”

The showroom features fully operational ophthalmic equipment.

But Device Technologies’ reliance on its showroom has been limited to Sydney clients only for much of the year due to COVID-19 state border closures. Travel restrictions have also blocked the company from getting in front of optometrists and ophthalmologists at the usual trade events this year.

As a result, it prompted a rethink of how the company could effectively market, sell and demonstrate its equipment to eyecare professionals, many whom have been keen to upgrade their instruments as part of the government’s instant asset write off scheme.

“We asked our marketing and digital team to provide video access to customers so they could see the equipment in a virtual tour, as if they were there in the showroom. It was pretty basic, but it had a really positive impact on customer interactions. They are making major purchasing decisions and it’s tough to do that from a brochure, so in the current context, it was a nice way to bridge of the gap,” Hatfield-Smith explains.

New equipment purchases may be in service for up to 20 years, so eyecare professionals often travel interstate to test the devices.

“In Jayson’s case, we took him through the functions of the chair and stands, the slit lamps, and automated refraction equipment, as well as the OCTs through the video link, enabling us to demonstrate basically everything we believe to be important with our technology.

“We also had the capability to give him a link to a PC that had our software containing our demonstration data which allowed us to take him from the live, showroom walkthrough feed, into another area where he could see our software on his computer screen as if he were at a trade show. That way he could see the same workflow and processes that he would if he was in practice.”

Shifting priorities 

In addition to the way ophthalmic device suppliers interact with clients, COVID-19 has altered the type of equipment in demand.

Hatfield-Smith says eyecare professionals have been keen to minimise the risk of infection, which has led to a surge in inquiries about breath shields, automated refractive equipment and tonometers.

“We have seen a growing interest towards digital refraction devices such as the Topcon CV-5000, which is a computerised refractor head. With a conventional phoropter head you need to stand close to the patient to adjust the dials manually. But in this current climate, there is increased risk in performing a refraction that way, and so the computerised version keeps clinicians away from the patient – they can sit at their desk with a digital touch screen controller and can change the refractive powers of the phoropter head at a safer distance to the patient,” he says.

Another COVID-19-related trend has been increased interest in disposable, single use tonometer prism systems. Hatfield-Smith says conventional Goldmann applanation tonometry adopts a reusable prism that requires sterilisation between uses.

“Haag-Streit have a system called Tonosafe. It replaces the re-usable prism with a re-usable holder, and a disposable tip, allowing clinicians to simply dispose the component that touches the eye. It’s a very minor adjustment to their standard Haag-Streit tonometer system and a lot of customers feel it’s another small risk taken away,” he explains.

The road ahead 

In the lead up to opening his first practice, Stone doesn’t know if his stress levels are any different to what they would have been under normal circumstances, but the smooth equipment purchase process has been one less thing to worry about.

Since enlisting the services of Device Technologies, he says the company has also liaised with the architectural firm to ensure power and data points are correctly located so there will be no glitches once he goes live.

With everything in place, he’s been able to focus his attention on how he will run the practice. He’s feeling optimistic.

“When the practice I currently work at reopened in June, that was its highest grossing month in 12-plus years of operating. The restrictions brought people out spending, so now we’re out of another lockdown I’m hoping we can harness that along with the traditionally busy December and January period,” Stone says.

“People are also less likely to travel overseas or interstate, which means we have this captured audience, so we will need to show that we have got what they need for the Christmas, New Year or summer period. We’re excited and anxious to get going.”

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