Optometry practices can prepare for a strong recovery post COVID-19, according to Pierre Longerna, CEO of Essilor Australia and New Zealand.
Acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused a “major crisis” for individuals and businesses, he said international experience suggests the optical industry will recover faster than the general economy.
“In China for example, we see the level of activity is back at its normal level – which in a way is not a very big surprise – people who need an eye exam and new glasses due to changing vision can postpone for a little time but not forever.
“We are fortunate to be operating in an industry that meets an essential need and this is one of the main reasons why our industry is strong. While it has experienced a shock, it’s not going to disappear or weaken,” Mr Longerna told mivision.
Now that we have moved through the second quarter, during which some restrictions have eased, he said the Australian market may even experience a catch up period.
“It’s very difficult to predict consumer behaviour at this time, but we do know that people have their health insurance benefits and they’re going to use them by the end of the year – so prepare for the rebound and be ready to be busy in the second half of the year,” he said.
Around the globe, Mr Longerna said consumers are changing their behaviours in response to COVID-19, and across all sectors, are taking a stronger interest in health.
“In optics we’re seeing an increasing interest in blue light blocking lenses as consumers are working more online from their homes. Additionally, we’re seeing a growing demand for anti-fog coatings on lenses because people are wearing glasses over the top of masks, causing the lenses to fog.”
Both patients and practice staff are also more aware of the need to maintain physical distancing in optical dispensing and examination rooms.
“Technology can help a lot. We have equipment like VisioOffice and instruments which enable practitioners to maintain 1.5–2m distance from a patient and we’re working with our health partner Optimed to further develop technologies and protocols to keep optometrists and their patients safe.”
Mr Longerna admitted the COVID-19 pandemic had a broader impact on the Australian industry than initially anticipated.
“At the beginning of March, we were still confident that what was happening internationally would not have the same impact as in Australia, but everything happened very quickly, borders were closed, and restrictions were put in place, and we had to adapt.
“From the beginning, we established three priorities:
- The safety of our employees and our customers – we focussed on how we could very quickly implement social distancing,
- Business continuity to support customers operating in different environments. In New Zealand, everything stopped in the optical industry and as a consequence it was almost easier to freeze everything. In Australia, where each State maintained different levels of activity, we worked to help practices maintain business continuity by providing a good level of service, with no major disruptions to supply except in a few instances where transportation companies were having difficulty, and
- Support for our customers navigating this challenging time and preparing for the future.”
Essilor offered all customers access to a series of webinars and a tool kit, presented by Craig McFarlane, Director Education and Professional Services – Essilor AMERA, and Director of The International Vision Academy, Singapore.
“We took the opportunity to increase remote training for our customers by leveraging our existing education platforms,” Mr Longerna explained. “It is a good time for people to catch up on things they don’t usually have time to do and the feedback on the training and support provided has been positive.
“In independent optometry, practitioners don’t all share the same issues or concerns but generally, in the short term, they were very interested in practical advice on how they could continue to provide services while maintaining a safe environment for both staff and patients.
“Longer term, they want to know what will happen next and how to prepare for the re-start. We have provided a COVID-19 Practice Protocol kit to help them re-open in a safe environment and to reassure their customers of this.”
From a business point of view, Mr Longerna said Essilor has been able to provide practitioners with advice on managing their practices in a time of very low revenue.
“As part of Craig’s webinars, he was also able to share his expertise on how to prepare for the rebound – how to grow optical retail, how to better understand KPIs, how to use the information available to refine business plans, allocate resources and develop local marketing activities.”
Practitioners agreed that the advice Mr McFarlane offered was relevant and practical. Melinda Marriott, practice manager from Eyescan, Toorak, said having access to Mr McFarlane’s advice prompted her team to think outside the box.
“The Essilor sessions provided great insights and challenged us to invest in and develop our business while we have this time,” she said.
Mandy Richards, practice manager at Vision Michael Hare Eyecare Plus Optometrists in Southport, Queensland, said she was reminded that “we’re all in the same boat, navigating this time”. Additionally, Ms Richards said the webinars provided practical advice and business basics that could be implemented straight away. “For example, we’ve been communicating with our customers that we’re here, open and observing sanitisation practises, so we can look after all their optical needs and make them feel safe.”
Essilor itself was in the midst of a roadshow across Australia and New Zealand when COVID-19 triggered national lockdowns. Mr Longerna said the new products were launched and campaigns to support them will be activated once the market rebounds.
“In the meantime, our teams have done an excellent job re-organising resources and focussing on things that were not in their plans at the time – it all happened very naturally and we were able to make very quick decisions because we’ve got a team that works very well together.
“It has been a big crisis and it has impacted everyone – from individuals through to companies but we’re part of a strong industry that will overcome this shock and continue to grow.”
Mr Longerna urged customers to reach out to their Essilor contacts if they had any concerns or questions.