VM REPORTS Crafting a Comeback By Marge Axelrad and Mark Tosh Wednesday, June 23, 2021 12:30 AM RELATED CONTENT Consolidation, Balanced by Hard-Won Gains and Some Declines, Shape VM’s Top 50 VM's Top 50 and Top 10 Shares Grew, in a Challenging Year Key Optical Players Ranked by U.S. Sales in 2020 In a Down Year, Mass Merchants Still Outperform Overall Optical Market Snapshots of Optical’s 10 Largest U.S. Retail Players Scroll down to read interviews. View a PDF of this year's Top 50 U.S. Optical Retailers 2021 View a PDF of last year's Top 50 U.S. Optical Retailers 2020 The year 2020 was remarkable, presenting an almost unimagined range of challenges unheard of before COVID-19 became part of the lexicon. The result has been a wave of changes for everyone, whether at work or at home. Like many businesses, the optical/eyecare sector was significantly impacted by the long-running and continuing pandemic. Practices closed or operated with reduced hours over various time periods, and many still struggle with issues related to staffing and in-office safety. Resiliency became the watchword. To gain a better understanding of what happened and what lies ahead, as Vision Monday issues its signature Top U.S. Optical Retailers Report in such an exceptional year, we asked several of the Top 50’s optical retail executives about how they adapted to 2020’s upheaval and what they see coming next. Here’s what they said. Russ SteinhorstCEOShopko Optical “2020 was a year of unprecedented change. It required our teams to be flexible and agile. Our goal was to ensure we could continue to safely serve patients with their exam and eyewear needs. To do so, we invested heavily in PPE and cleaning solutions, staggered appointments, promoted usage of our contact lens website, and offered free shipping on all orders. We also added teleoptometry solutions in many stores to meet the demand coming out of the pandemic as a supplement to our in-house optometrists. The pandemic further solidified the value of great relationships between doctors, opticians and patients. As an industry, we need to continue focusing on educating the public on overall vision health and the value of comprehensive eye exams. With respect to staffing, our number one priority during the pandemic was to take care of our teams who take care of our patients. We are fortunate to have a tenured loyal workforce, and worked to ensure teammates had the resources needed to manage through both personal and work-related disruptions associated with COVID-19. Because of this, we have had limited openings tied to the pandemic. While we are certainly feeling the pressure of a tighter available workforce when opening new locations, our current employees continue to be our best recruiting advocates. For us, the patient experience continues to be focused on long-term vision health by providing a comprehensive eye exam and having a knowledgeable optician team who can help our patients select the best options for vision correction. By doing this, we establish and maintain the long-term relationships patients appreciate in their health care providers. In addition, a delay in eye exams and increased eye strain has driven a surge in demand. We expect this to continue as students prepare to return to school this fall.” Reade Fahs CEO National Vision Inc. “National Vision has always seen itself as a health care business—and during the pandemic, we became even more focused on the well-being of every customer, patient, associate, and doctor we work with. We enhanced cleaning and safety protocols, of course, but we also deepened our focus on taking care of the well-being of our National Vision team. Despite various moments of uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic, we continued to look toward a stronger future—investing in technology advancements, store updates and improvements, and opening lots of new stores. Since reopening, the demand for our convenient, value-based offerings has been pretty phenomenal. We believe that COVID-19 hastened trends that the industry has been seeing for the past several years—the growth of chains, omnichannel purchasing, and more focus on value and convenience. We are seeing more people getting eye exams and, of course, continued growth in products like blue light lenses. We at National Vision, along with most of the optical community, remain focused on emerging gradually and safely from the extreme COVID-19 concern, and we continue to follow CDC guidelines in our stores. Beyond this, we are doing our part to help America’s students return to in-person schooling, looking and seeing their best.” Darren Horndasch President and CEO Wisconsin Vision “Among the changes we made, first was the sanitation and disinfecting procedures that were put into play during the pandemic, including surfaces, equipment and frames, [along with] masks for team members and patients. I now see most of this to be in place going forward. The year before the pandemic, we were struggling with staff calling in due to cold and flu. With these new procedures/policies, I think we are able to manage these matters better. Second, is simply the issue of staffing. Unemployment is low and yet our ability to hire is at an all-time struggle and we have found ourselves in the position to attract talent with far less experience than in the past. As a result, we now have a full-time position dedicated to creating and executing training tracks. These are as basic as our inventory portfolio, optics 101, how to best recommend products and services, and similar things. Going forward, our belief is that telehealth is a key priority. This is an area that we are looking to launch in the very near future. We continue to monitor the mask mandates in states and communities where we operate. Our priority is to keep our team and patients healthy and safe. However, with some of the recent CDC communication regarding vaccinated persons we have begun to relax the mask mandate at our corporate office, lab and in our locations for customers/patients (not staff and not patients while in the exam lane). This is a policy that will undergo constant review and be based on the science and data. Still, staffing is a major issue and until the additional funding for unemployment is relieved it will continue to be so. There have been times when a dozen candidates have expressed interest in a job, two will show for an interview and one will accept only not to show on the first day of work. Retaining our great talent that has been with us for years and expressing our gratitude for their service is paramount to our organization. On the patient side, there has been a tremendous amount of online traffic to our website and more and more customers/patients use the online appointment portal. In addition, our communication in email and texting has ramped up drastically. This past year has been amazing in terms of demand. I think that working from home and school from home have contributed to the demand with digital fatigue and having time to address personal needs. The concern is moving forward and when does that demand begin to cease. Managed care benefits have certainly assisted in the drive, but if we are faced with inflation in the near future, will the demand slow? Another key point that is important is that the cost of doing business has risen. Materials cost more and labor costs more. On the labor side, although a new minimum wage law has not passed at this time, it happened organically with the additional government stimulus. We now hire team members, with no experience, at a greater cost than in the past just to compete.” Sue Downes CEO MyEyeDr. “In terms of adapting, we took a closer look at opportunities to enhance our omnichannel experience by better connecting in-office and online components of the patient journey. We began by overhauling our online appointment scheduler to create a smoother experience for both our patients and associates. As an industry, though, it is time for us to move forward to a true health care position. Additionally, we must focus on increasing and raising consumer awareness on the importance of comprehensive eyecare as it relates to their overall health. Going forward and given the fact that many patients postponed necessary routine eyecare, it is a priority for us to provide ample opportunities for patients to re-engage with us. This includes adding additional availability so our patients can see their doctors in a timely, convenient, and safe manner. Patients are prioritizing their vision and looking for solutions to meet their needs in a post-COVID environment. This includes accelerated demand for tools that help them conveniently engage outside of the four walls of an optical practice.” Jamie Rosin Co-President Rosin Eyecare “Among the key adaptations to the pandemic, we changed our hours of operations, utilized telemedicine particularly early on in the pandemic, designed new safety protocols and explored several VTO programs. In the mid-term, we are curious to see how lasting the online transaction preference will be as [things return to a more normal environment]. Our key priorities now are to ramp back up our staffing levels for sure. Yes, we have seen staffing issues in our business. Among patient changes, it seems that shopping patterns so far have changed. Weekends and evenings, which used to be high demand, now are much lower in terms of patient demand. Yes, there is pent-up demand and meeting this demand with current staffing problems is a challenge to a large degree.” John Bonizio Owner and Chief Operating Officer Metro Optics “The pandemic presented many challenges, and these led to opportunities. We were forced to adapt to new social and physical protocols and a unique way of maintaining a presence in our patients’ lives that kept their confidence throughout it all. We accomplished this as we did before the mayhem began—through relationships between our patients and our staff. Practices grow when their people grow. We never lost sight of that simple rule. We protected our staff, kept them financially sound, and encouraged them to rise above the fear of the unknown. We brought in enhanced technology and spent heavily on protective equipment and safety protocols to assure that safety for our staff. This in turn protected our patients and maintained our image. In the end, we matched the successes of 2019—never looking back with fear, only ahead with determination and confidence. Many things have changed but the constant of our staff’s determination to adapt and meet new challenges will keep us growing.” Eric Anderson CEO AEG Vision “At AEG Vision, our immediate concern was for the health and safety of our doctors, associates and patients. Beginning in March 2020, we closed all practices and facilities for six weeks in compliance with CDC/AOA safety recommendations. During this period, we took significant steps to maintain payroll and benefits for doctors and employees. We also used the time to improve processes, technology platforms, recall programs in preparation for reopening and receiving patients again. Once CDC/AOA indicated it was safe to reopen, we implemented strict COVID-19 operating protocols (PPE, social distancing) at all of our facilities. As a result, we experienced strong doctor/employee retention coupled with sustained significant increases in patient volume and patient satisfaction. As a result of the pandemic, patients are more acutely aware of their health and wellness. Optical practices with a stronger focus on ‘patient care’ are well positioned to leverage this.” Tiffanie Burkhalter President VSP Ventures “We really focused on partnering with Ventures’ practice doctors and staff to ensure our team had what they needed to deliver eyecare to their patients safely. This included providing PPE, trainings, best practices and a community to leverage for support. Our priority is to continue to raise awareness of the value of eyecare and its role in preventive care, and to support network doctors with the tools they need to successfully meet this moment of collective interest in overall health. Also, we’re definitely seeing a shift in the spending habits of our members. Many are purchasing an additional pair of glasses or adding blue light reducing coatings to their lenses to address the increased screen time we’ve all experienced. That’s in line with a recent survey we conducted that showed 9 in 10 Americans think it’s important to take care of their vision, particularly now. The last year has certainly inspired a renewed sense of well-being—and that includes our eyes.” Harvey Ross Chairman HMR Holdings/Optyx LLC “We were able to stay open during the pandemic but we saw patients and customers by appointment only. This made our clients feel more safe and secure and we were able to continue to offer the individualized service customers appreciate. Going forward, I think more customers will continue to ‘shop local.’ The pandemic showed them they could see the same product in our stores that they can see in the crowded department stores. Our stores have a much more personalized atmosphere and we are able to offer specialized attention. Clients see value in that.” Nick Williams CEO Keplr Vision At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic our clinical and executive teams led an extensive initiative—including [developing] a guidebook for safely reopening our clinics after all were shuttered for at least two weeks. The [subsequent] months were filled with monumental challenges requiring real-time, complex decision-making on a scale that no one could have ever predicted. This company is no stranger to adversity, and because of that we have learned to adapt quickly and think differently. We believe there is no other option than to succeed. Keplr Vision practices are some of the most medically focused in the industry. The majority of Keplr providers continued to offer medical office visits throughout the pandemic, preventing delayed medical care. Where we did see pent-up demand was in routine care. With the return of routine care in late May, the provider schedules filled up quickly and haven’t seen much of a slowdown since. We do anticipate returning to some semblance of seasonality this June and July. In terms of long-term changes, while we do see teleoptometry playing a greater role in our business going forward, we see it as an enhancement—not a replacement—to the infinite patient experience provided at our clinics. We remain devoted to providing in-person primary health care that is second-to-none. Our company lost very little momentum during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, largely because our OD partners took the lead in making sure they were there for their patients. We were one of the first to reopen because we are patient-centric, and our medical optometry model allowed us to make sure those with significant medical eyecare needs still got the care they needed. Today there is a tremendous opportunity for us to partner with the best optometrists in our industry—and we of course see this as a primary source of growth in the upcoming year. Additionally, we are looking at other ways to grow the business—exploring new locations, building alliances with optometry schools across the country, and strengthening our supply chain through advancements at our lens lab.