The New World Order

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The New World Order
Innovative features power up optical B2B online ordering


NEW YORK—In the optical world, electronic ordering is nothing new. As far back as the 1970s, the Green Bay, Wisconsin company Opticom developed and implemented data transmission and ordering systems that enabled optical laboratories to order lenses from manufacturers.

But B2B online ordering is changing. And changing fast, particularly over the past year. The advent of internet portals such as Eyefinity and VisionWeb and websites operated by large distribution groups, as well as a growing roster of suppliers, are giving eyecare professionals new tools and services that allow them to better manage the online ordering process. With tens of thousands of ECPs now using the internet to source frames, lenses and other products every day, online ordering has become a more efficient, cost-effective way for busy practices to communicate with their suppliers. In short, it’s the new world order.

Benefits of online ordering include “24/7 availability, an ability to check order status online, no waiting time to reach a representative on the phone, and fewer errors,” according to a study conducted in August 2011 by Practice Advancement Associates on behalf of VisionWeb, one of the primary internet portals through which ECPs can place orders.

The time savings alone is reason enough to make online ordering a primary method of sourcing B2B products, the results indicated. “Respondents consistently reported lower amounts of time spent to order products online than to place orders on the telephone—ranging from about one half minute less for spectacle lens orders to 1.5 minutes less for contact lens orders,” according to the study. “Typical online orders took just over three minutes to place, while telephone orders tended to average over four minutes.”

When you add these time savings up on an incremental basis for a busy practice, they can be significant over the course of a year. “If, for example, a minute were saved, on average, by ordering online and 2,500 orders are placed annually, the 2,500 minutes saved are equivalent to 42 hours. That’s a full week of staff time that could be spent on patient care, recall or other revenue-generating activities,” according to the study.

ECPs’ awareness and usage of electronic ordering is also evidenced by shifts in how they use Frames Data, a division of the Jobson Optical Group, and Frames’ Spex UPC. Spex UPC, a monthly product that works with practice management software is the Frames Data frame database in a format that can be loaded into practice management software so the practice doesn’t have to enter it by hand, noted Tom Doyle, marketing and circulation director of Frames Data Group. “Using Spex UPC makes the inventory process much faster,” he noted, adding the number of ECPs/practices now taking advantage of Spex UPC has grown by 30 percent over the past three years.

FramesData.com access is included with a Frames Data Quarterly or Spex UPC subscription. The Frames Data website doesn’t accept orders directly although its information is integrated into dozens of practice management systems as well as the optical portals. And the number of registered users of the site has grown by 45 percent and website visits and page views have leaped by 70 percent in the past year, said Doyle.

GROWING FASTER
THAN THE INDUSTRY


 
The two primary internet portals, VisionWeb and Eyefinity, both report increased usage of online ordering that surpasses that of the growth of the industry as a whole.

“VisionWeb orders are up over 20 percent as compared to last year,” said Ken Engelhart, president and CEO of the 11-year-old company based in Austin, Texas, “and we know the industry isn’t growing at that level. This growth supports our belief that if you offer offices a positive user experience, flexibility and choice, which we give them through our open and neutral portal, they will embrace electronic ordering over other alternatives.” VisionWeb currently has 20,000 registered users accessing products from a total of 400 suppliers, numbers which are continually increasing.

Eyefinity, established in 2000 by Vision Service Plan (VSP), reports overall growth of 18 percent in online transactions over last year. “The core message is that we’re tracking above the growth index,” said Steve Baker, president of Eyefinity. That’s about 25,000 ECP members visiting the website every day. He believes this is due, in part, to an increasing comfort level with online transactions in general, “certainly among younger doctors who are used to the online experience in their personal life, like banking. It’s more of an expectation of the way to do business,” he said.

In addition to an increase in online purchasing in general, part of what’s fueling this trend toward more business-to-business online ordering is the fact that VisionWeb, Eyefinity, ABB Concise and buying groups such as Optical Distributor Group (ODG) and others continue adding tools and services for their growing number of ECP users while at the same time boosting the number of suppliers offering an increasing number of products online.

WHAT’S NEW FOR VISIONWEB

In the month of October alone, VisionWeb added three new frame suppliers—Art-Craft Optical, ClearVision Optical and Kenmark Optical. “We have several new ones coming aboard, with some more by the end of the quarter and more next year,” said Heather Smith, senior marketing manager.

For ECPs accessing frames through VisionWeb, the ability to check inventory status is one feature that has been added for some suppliers and has gained traction for others. Before placing an order, ECPs can see if there are plenty of frames available or if inventory is low or on backorder. Selecting the drop-shipping feature sends frames directly to the lab to meet up with the spectacle lenses being sent from another source for the same job.

 
Frames are among the products ECPs can source through Eyefinity’s eBuy tool.

Eyefinity’s SunRx capability simplifies the purchasing of prescription sunwear for private practices.
One of VisionWeb’s newest features is the ability to save a partially completed order as pending. Previously, orders could only be saved when they were complete. Now, if an ECP is interrupted for any reason while preparing an order, it can be saved to be completed at a later time.

A favorites feature was also added this year, enabling ECPs to reuse an order over and over for a frequently ordered lens.

What’s coming online in 2012 for VisionWeb? While that information won’t be released until any new features are actually available, Smith alluded to them by saying, “We’ve got some things coming for spectacle lens ordering that will make using VisionWeb more convenient, more efficient and even easier than ever before.”

EYEFINITY AND BEYOND

Eyefinity has also added some new features to its online ordering portals in 2011. Its eBuy tool provides ECPs with online ordering access to over one million eyewear products, including stock lenses, frames and contact lenses through a vast catalog from leading manufacturers, and eLab is an online ordering system that allows for all spectacle lens lab orders (not just VSP orders) to be placed online to over 300 labs nationwide.

“We added a number of features to make the ordering process work better for private practice and some of the new services that we offer seem to have a much faster adoption rate than in years past,” said Baker. One example is eBuy’s SunRx capability that simplifies the purchasing of prescription sunwear for private practices. “Ordering proprietary sunwear technology is a little complicated and sometimes [it seems] you need a decoder ring to know what frames can go with what lenses,” said Baker. “But the site was specifically designed to be quick and easy to understand.”

Opening a door to new business opportunities for private practices, SunRx has had nearly 100 percent growth since it was launched in 2010. “We’re tracking to do double what we did last year,” said Baker.

Another new opportunity made available to ECPs through Eyefinity this year is the availability of stock lenses. This trend ties into a larger in-office finishing program with VSP that allows ECPs to be reimbursed by the managed care giant even when they edge lenses in-house. Available stock lenses include VSP Optics’ own Unity brand as well as lenses from Hoya, Essilor, SOLA, Zeiss, Somo, Younger, Polycore, and clip-on manufacturer, Eclips.

A LESSON IN SOCIAL STUDIES

Eyefinity and VisionWeb both expressed an increase in their social media presence, something that might be expected from two internet-based online ordering portals. This serves not only as a way for the websites to promote themselves but also to provide information that will help practices improve their efficiency.

“We’ve really been focusing this year on working hard through social media and building content to help ECPs be more efficient and create more community among users,” said Smith about some of VisionWeb’s outreach efforts in 2011. A VisionWeb blog introduced this year also helps teach ECPs how to use social media themselves. “We’ve provided general social media tips, things we’ve learned from a marketing perspective that maybe ECPs can provide to their business,” Smith said.

Baker agrees that using the Eyefinity website itself as well as social media sites can serve not only as a means to promote his company but also to help practices improve their business. “It’s not just a shift from paper to online,” he said. “It’s a shift in business growth. We use many of our existing vehicles, for example eyefinity.com is a big communication vehicle for us, but there is also growing adoption of social media platforms. Our blog and Twitter, some of those are also areas where we can teach practices.”


INNOVATION FOSTERED
BY DISTRIBUTION GROUPS



ODG’s Scan2Web feature helps ECPs manage their revenue and diagnostic inventory.
Optical Distributor Group is one of the largest and fastest growing independently owned contact lens distributors, free-form lens manufacturers, and finished spectacle lens suppliers in the country. Headquartered in Hawthorne, N.Y., near New York City, the company operates branch offices in Rocky Mount, N.C., Foley, Minn., Portland, Ore., Addison, Texas and Santa Ana, Calif.

ODG receives a large volume of online orders through its website, opticaldg.com. But company president and COO
Jeff Rems believes that just having a website isn’t enough
for today’s practitioners.

“You need to give them comprehensive tools for online ordering,” said Rems. “Online ordering has to be easy. It has to have features built in to make the ordering process more efficient for the user, like not having to enter each SKU but going into a grid that you can easily populate. It has to be fast. You have to recognize what are the technical capabilities of the accounts as far as what software and systems they’re using, so that the ordering works across the board.”

SHOPPING CART CONVENIENCE

Rems pointed out that shopping cart technology is essential for B2B sites, just as with consumer websites. It allows practitioners to place orders throughout the day and then push a button and send them all out at the end of the day.

ODG’s system consolidates shipments, and automatically splits by location including direct-to-patient shipments, according to Rems. It also includes ‘save-for-later’ features. For example, an ECP can save stock order in the cart to reach a quantity goal while releasing time-sensitive patient orders.

Rems described ODG’s online ordering system as “intelligent and intuitive.” For example, if a practitioner orders a specific brand in a quantity, the system will identify if the manufacturer is running a promotion. If an order is shipped to a patient’s home, the patient may elect to purchase eight boxes of lenses instead of four in order to take advantage of a promotional offer.

“It’s a virtual savings alert, and it’s kind of unique to us,” he noted, adding that the system also displays multiple ordering options when available for the greatest possible savings. It also notifies the ECP of potential patient savings and offers such as manufacturer rebates. “It’s online up-selling,” commented Rems.

ODG recently enhanced its online ordering capabilities by a feature called Scan2Web, a comprehensive program that allows practitioners to better manage their revenue and diagnostic inventory.

  
More practices and optical retailers are opting to use the
e-version of Frames Data and Spex UPC in their practices.
“We provide practitioners with a small handheld scanning device so they can easily scan barcodes directly from the product package, blister, fitting kit or from convenient printable UPC catalog sheets provided by ODG,” Rems explained. “The device connects via USB to the ODG desktop application and sends all of the scanned product directly to the practitioner’s online shopping cart for inclusion with their daily orders.”

STAYING ON TRACK

A popular feature with many practitioners is ODG’s real time order tracking. When an account places an online order with Digital Eye Lab, ODG’s onsite lab, they can see where the job is in the lab and be able to tell the patient exactly when to expect their glasses. The system can also provide accurate estimates of contact lens shipments.

Because practitioners often place multiple orders, ODG has created a member “dashboard” that serves as a centralized location where practitioners are able to access order status, invoice histories, patient notification and communication tools, suggested savings based upon purchase history, important product notifications as well as reporting and marketing tools.

In addition to its online ordering features, the site has a feature called ODG Net Results, which provides customizable patient communication and marketing tools. “We offer prefabricated as well as customizable templates to notify patients of yearly exam schedules, prescription expiration and lens replenishment reminders, plus a target market email tool to announce new products, practice news, and marketing campaigns,” Rems said.

Operating a successful online ordering system requires a well-trained support staff, and ODG has a dedicated team in place to provide help when needed. “Our staff responds to customers either via email or phone,” said Rems. “They’re experts on how our site works.”

   
ABB Concise’s shopping cart image shows a Direct to Office Order and a Direct to Patient Order, each separated to enable ECPs to scan their orders by type. Live Chat offers an interactive customer service chat session. 

THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS


ABB Concise, the largest contact lens distributor in the country, has long been building an infrastructure and “back room” internet support function to assist eyecare professionals in growing their use of online ordering. This has evolved both for their own practices via B2B programs as well as direct-to-consumer capabilities maintaining doctor controls via YourLens.com for the burgeoning B2C contact lens replacement market.

Angel Alvarez, president and CEO, told VM, “Our entire business has been increasing almost a point a month in the past year or two from ECP orders coming in online—we are now up to about 75 percent of our entire business online now, a huge number.”

ABB Concise continues to add new tools and enhancements to its site for ECPs including the ability to leave their shopping carts “open” throughout the day, which allows for the consolidation of orders to the practice and/or to verify if products are in stock. New features also enable ECPs to combine their own B2B orders with a B2C order at the same time to enhance service to patients as well.

“Even before, but especially within the last two years, we spend a lot of time demonstrating with information the ways that retailers and ECPs can see the costs of the way they traditionally do business compared to utilizing online ordering,” noted Alvarez.

“It’s certainly been understood in the contact lens business where online has clearly become the way to go. And what’s happening in the frame and lens business now—in fact the whole supply chain—is another major shift. As an industry we cannot sustain these older, traditional forms of distribution, the costs just don’t make sense in an age where technology provides such a tremendous new tool.

“We are working on how we can partner with frame companies and labs to create a more efficient chain of supply. They need it to compete, to be efficient. The big ‘win’ will be better and more timely information and reduced costs for doctors and optical retailers,” Alvarez said.

maxelrad@jobson.com
akarp@jobson.com

jsailer@jobson.com