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What can pharmacy learn from optometry?

In the face of pharmacy’s funding cuts, is there something useful pharmacists can learn from the way optometrists operate, asks Jeremy Holmes, board member of the Association of Optometrists and a former chief executive and registrar of the RPS.

Many community pharmacists look at optometry with something approaching envy. There are obvious similarities – a professional, regulated service combined with a retail business – but the margins on spectacles look very attractive, and the opportunity to offer regular sight tests, even if they are free, is a great way to build loyalty.

While optometrists may look at pharmacy with green eyes regarding control of entry, they are much less dependent on the NHS – sometimes less than 15 per cent of turnover. Pharmacists’ real envy of optometrists is reserved for the way they can cross-sell and up-sell to higher value products.

How many times have you come out of a practice with two pairs of glasses, or with classier frames, when you only went in for one pair at the budget end of the scale? Marketing obviously plays a part, but is it also to do with the relationship you have with the optometrist?

Vivian Bush, a former local optical committee chairman in Yorkshire and the fifth generation of his family to practise optometry, says he is a “retailer of himself”. Good communication is key and patients pay for their interaction with him as a professional, he says. This is especially important for the expanding older population, who place a value on being properly informed –and it is a good defence against internet sales, he adds. 

By contrast, many patients in a pharmacy are used to getting healthcare services for free. Even those who pay prescription charges may think that the payment is just for the drug and that the pharmacist is paid by the NHS. As a result, there is a barrier to getting people to pay for non-NHS products and services.

Overcoming this means, firstly, casting a critical eye over the pharmacy environment. Optometrists seem pretty good at creating an experience that is genuinely inviting and is not just about the basic transaction of a spectacle sale or a sight test.

Gordon Ilett, an independent optometrist, says he wants his customers to enjoy even their waiting time at his practice. He compares it with how bookshops have been transformed. Nowadays you often don’t go in just to buy a book; you can browse, take something off the shelf, sit in a comfy chair to flick through it, then go and have a coffee – all without leaving the store.

Views differ on customer care plans in optometry – where a regular monthly payment provides access to product discounts and unlimited professional advice – but there’s definitely a focus on what some call “care plus”. With many patients taking an interest in their own daily health, from skincare to diet, could this be the way pharmacists build stronger customer relationships?

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