It may have been the hottest June day for 40 years but Vision Express CEO, Jonathan Lawson, was keeping a cool head on political influence, acquisitions and taking vision seriously, Chris Bennett reports
It is not often that Vision Express takes Optician to task but earlier this year it felt moved to fire off a tetchy email.
It was a fair cop. Optician had indeed quoted the Macular Society, in its call for a National Eye Health Strategy, as saying optics had not been discussed in parliament since 2010. Given that VE was working with Rebecca Harris MP on a number of projects it wanted to put the record straight. Unfortunately a snap election was called shortly after the call highlighting the difficulty of optics working with MPs and securing parliamentary time.
Yes, Vision Express is campaigning but, adds Lawson, only so much can happen in parliament. ‘I do think we are going to have some realism because if we wait continually for some airtime within a Queen’s Speech for an Eye Health Strategy to develop we will be waiting a long time. Because there will be no room on this Queen’s Speech and, as and when we have another one, there will be no room in that one either, Brexit will dominate,’ he says.
Lawson says while VE would support a National Eye Health Strategy there are many practical ways it can also live up to its positioning under the Vison Taken Seriously banner.
‘All our focus as Vision Express is with Vision Taken Seriously. That sets out clearly that we wish to been seen for far more than selling glasses. All of our activities and campaigns are derived from that positioning around eye health. I have always thought that if you have a strong understanding about your brand it makes it far easier to understand what sort of things you should get involved with and what you shouldn’t.’
All of VE’s activity over the past few years: the Vision Van, the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT), the Macular Society or to support glaucoma – all of that comes from Vision Taken Seriously. That shows the firm’s concern for the nation’s eye health and its assertion that it should be higher up the agenda. Lawson says: ‘That means the public, the optical bodies, political parties and the multiples. Therefore we have got to think a bit more laterally about how we drive that forward.’
Lawson is also realistic about how that is going to happen when it is put to him that the job should fall to the optical bodies.
‘It should come from all of us,’ he says, not wanting to be accused of directly criticising any one party. ‘I think, candidly, we have all got to accept that what we have done to date is not good enough because statistics suggest that we have not yet convinced the critical mass of people to take their eye health seriously. While most people will say they value the long-term health of their eyes 16.5m adults will say they haven’t had an eye exam in the last five years.’
The message may be clear, the trick is making it stick. ‘We can all make ourselves feel better and get together in a room and have a unified strategy, but if that message is communicated in a way that isn’t actually heard by the people we are trying to talk to it is pretty pointless.’
And Lawson is under no illusions as to how high profile eye care should be. ‘If it’s not a on a top 10 list of the things an ordinary person has to do on a daily basis then nothing will be done about it.’
There is no issue with the message it is the way it is being communicated. ‘We might have to have a rethink about how we actually communicate in a way that triggers a response and triggers action.’ Communication is as important as the strategy itself. ‘If it works then use it,’ he concludes.
Pragmatism comes in many forms and, not afraid to court controversy, Lawson raises the issue of free eye examinations. He says when supporting eye care initiatives – it was macular degeneration in the week we spoke – effective action must be taken. ‘We will activate free eye tests again which some people feels devalues eye health. I completely disagree. I think everyone should be wholeheartedly supporting what we are doing because every time we support these events, around macular degeneration, glaucoma awareness, etc, we get new people coming in for an eye examination.’
This is ultimately a good thing, he says, as it encourages people to take their eye care seriously and people will get eye care who might not have done if the free eye test was not on offer. He says it is about removing barriers. ‘If one of the barriers is the cost then by running free eye tests and raising awareness someone who wouldn’t have had care has been helped. I my view that is great.’
Lawson says his recently appointed director of professional services, Jay Ghadiali, challenges him on many things. ‘Where we absolutely agree is that the more people that come in for an eye exam the better.’
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of Vision Express in recent weeks has been the proposed takeover of Tesco Opticians which is still subject to approval by the Competition and Markets Authority.
If the takeover does get the green light how will VE handle differences such as Tesco offer of free eye examinations for all, could that be adopted across the whole group?
‘That’s part of our commercial considerations. I’m sure you wouldn’t expect me to share my commercial strategy going forward. What I would say is the acquisition of Tesco Opticians is subject to clearance from the CMA. At the point we receive that approval we will work towards the integration of those stores into the VE brand. We will ensure that we continue to offer all of our customers strong value for money and we will work out the right way to do that.’
Acquiring businesses is nothing new for VE but Tesco’s 200 outlets would bring VE’s tally up to 600, close to Boots and Specsavers, is that it for additions to the group?
‘This acquisition doesn’t prevent us from taking more opportunities but it allows us to be more selective.’ He says the exciting difference with this acquisition is that all of the developing trends in recent years have moved toward more convenience for the consumer. ‘This puts us in some very convenient locations. If someone had said to me would I be interested in an additional 200 locations on high streets I would have said probably not. I think these are quite distinct locations versus our existing locations and allows us to target new customers in a way which is hugely convenient for them and to bring the Vision Express brand to new customers. I’m really excited about that.’
Will those new Tesco outlet become fully fledged Vision Express stores or will there be a VE-lite approach?
‘This is about raising the awareness and convenience of the Vision Express brand,’ he says. The look, feel and tone of voice of those outlets will be pure VE but, as with any retailer, the commercial offer in specific locations will be best placed to suit its customer base. ‘Absolutely, a Vision Express store in a Tesco will be the same in terms of approach as we would have in any other Vision Express store. But the range that we have in a London store would be different than the range we would have somewhere else in the country.’
If approval is granted Lawson does not see the need for massive rationalisation and the current Tesco outlets will continue to operate the hours they do today. ‘I think this is one of the exciting elements. Had this been an acquisition of 200 stores on the high street then inevitably there would have been a degree of overlap and cannibalisation. These are new locations with new customers and I am looking forward to operating an estate of over 600 stores.’
The political change Lawson alluded to before has also taken its toll on the market as predicted. Seeing a squeeze on household incomes, means being successful is about offering value for money.
‘We have focused on value for money really hard in the last few years and I think all of those efforts will stand us in really good stead. At the moment I am as proud as punch that I can say that our fastest selling glasses are £39 and I am proud that are teams are proud to sell those glasses to our customers.’
While the weakness of the pound has lead to some cost pressure VE has done its best to shield its customers from that pain, in the interests of the long term view. Having patients walk out of a store feeling they have been cared for and had value for money is the goal. The opportunity he sees is being a broad retailer in the middle of the market. ‘We are a mid-market brand with broad appeal to all customers. When times are tough customers’ loyalty to those retailers who give them a good experience will show through. We are smack bang in the middle. That allows us to talk to an elderly patient about their eye health, to talk to people about eye fashion.’
The latest TV campaign with Julie Walters endorses this with the message to book an eye exam coming from characters who span the age ranges. Julie Walters does not just appeal to one sector of the market. ‘When my kids watched it they said hey that’s great it’s the woman from Harry Potter, Julie appeals to all segments and all age groups. Our trends over the last three or four years have shown growth in every single age group in every single demographic and we look at that every week.’ He says targeting a single age group just would not work.
Regardless of what type of retailer you are you need to be clear about what you stand for to your customers and deliver that brilliantly. There are some cracking independents that offer something quite distinct and quite unique that would be very hard for the multiples to replicate.’ He does not subscribe to the idea of independents as a sector. ‘I think it’s a slight oxymoron, by their very nature they are not a sector they are independents. Some independents will be doing incredibly well, some I suggest, may not but that is down to their own business. They are not a ubiquitous mass and the ones who are doing well will probably be feeling pretty positive about life.’
The most obvious competitor VE does have to deal with is Specsavers. What is his assessment of its move into enhanced optical services and OCT?
‘I can understand why they have looked at OCT, we have looked at OCT and we have a number of stores with OCT.’ He says being part of Grand Vision gives VE access to the latest technological advances and global suppliers. ‘We have to think very carefully about what is the right investment to make and at the right point in time I’m sure we will make some further investments in the customer journey of eye care for our patients. Whether that is OCT may or may not be the right decision as there is some other quite exciting technology around. I am sure Specsavers took some time to make that decision and I completely understand it.’
He does not see the adoption of OCT in a multiple as a game changer. ‘The game changer, if there is one, is the way we communicate with people and encourage more people in. If anyone does that, and we should be doing it collectively, that is the game changer we should be focusing upon.’ Customers want an increased level of communication and an increased level of knowledge and awareness about their eye exam. The key challenge is to get more people in because if you can do that the response is really positive, adds Lawson.
‘ I certainly believe that there is an opportunity for technology to enhance the customer journey and for us to improve our levels of communication and engagement. That’s not about trying to get more money out of customers, it’s about adding value in terms of the customer journey and the knowledge of those customers. It’s a question of which technology is the right investment to achieve that.’ As ever, he says technology is moving so fast that it is possible if you invest on a large scale today, by the time the roll out is complete the next thing has come out.
If the intention is to boost clinical influence Lawson says there are Vision Express stores with OCT and others involved in enhanced services with local secondary care.
‘There is a natural opportunity for us to assist [the NHS] because we are there in the community and can play an advanced role. If that takes some of the strain away from the NHS then great there’s a logical opportunity. We already have a huge amount of that going on at a local level in our stores. I think it’s important for the NHS to develop its own coherent strategy for what it actually wants to happen – we might be waiting for some time as ever so it’s just up to us to get on with it. People tend to crack on, in the absence of a coherent strategy, we are cracking on.’
A story which dominated the optical headlines was the merger of Luxottica and Essilor. Has their merger, and rumours of a move to build a bigger retail channel changed VE approach to branded eyewear?
‘Not really. We have got some really good brands within Grand Vision but I don’t feel dependent on any particular body. We are the world’s biggest optical retailer in 44 countries and our dependence on brands is not what it was. A significant majority of our frames are in house exclusive brands, that’s been incredibly successful.’ He says this also allows VE to be more selective about the licensed brands it does carry. ‘It’s not something that is keeping me awake at night. I would say from 20 years working in retail that no brand is irreplaceable. The greatest loyalty I see is around eye care and coming in to see optometrists.’
Employing those optometrists has become a sector-wide issue so has the rise of the locum optometrist created a problem for VE?
‘The proportion of locum use within our business is pretty stable and our retention levels of our optometrists is improving which I am pretty encouraged by. I don’t for one moment rest easy on that because one of the specific reasons for appointing Jay [Jay Ghadiali, director of professional services] is to further focus on engagement and development of professionals within our organisation.’ Part of taking vision seriously is taking the professional engagement and development of professional staff seriously as well, he adds. ‘That’s right up there for Jay in terms of his priorities. We are very clear and selective about where we use locums and we have had some success over the last year or two of locums converting back to us as permanent salary employed optoms.’
He says the issue around optometrist employment is the number qualifying and joining the profession. ‘I think the big issue is that we are not producing enough qualified professionals. I think there is a strongly held view across the industry that that is the case and think that needs to be looked at much harder than it is being.’ There are increasing areas of the country where employment is becoming an issue.
‘If we were successful in energising all of those people who are not currently coming in for eye exams to come in then we I think we would find ourselves quite short in the ability to fulfil all of that demand.’
Lawson says the GOC education review offers a great opportunity to look at training optometrists ready for the world of work and arming newly qualified with additional skills. In the meantime there is much businesses and practices can do to make a real difference to patients in practice.
‘The key thing that needs more focus is the development of communication skills, my biggest concern isn’t the development of technical know-how or further professional understanding, it’s actually the development of communication skills with our customers because that is something that our customer values massively. Whenever you receive positive praise back from customers it is about that role of the optometrist and the experience. What comes out time and time again is that it was clearly communicated to them and they understood what they were being told.’