Are Optometry Alliances and Optometry Buying Groups Right for Your Practice?
By Eleni Karayeva September 02, 2021
If you're in the optical industry, you've most likely heard of optometry alliances and optometry buying groups. Some practices have been members for years, while other up-and-coming practices are considering joining. Should you join too? IDOC, Vision Source - with so many options out there, what are the differences, and what should you look for to determine if it's the right choice for your practice?
Alliances and buying groups: what are they?
Originally, the main purpose of a buying group was to facilitate optimal pricing and bulk discounts for eye care practices. Optometry alliances on the other hand would boast a broader range of benefits; in addition to discounts, they would also offer services such as practice management and marketing. Nowadays, the lines between the two are often blurred, with alliances and buying groups giving the ECP’s the option to choose the membership package that would suit them best.
What’s in it for you?
Before you decide to sign up, consider what it is that you want from this membership. While all these alliances’ prospectuses might appear as an equally good option at first glance, you want to come prepared with your homework done. As an independent ECP, you obviously want an edge against competitors, and that includes the big names in the industry-something that an independent optometry office is lacking, but optometric chains have in spades. This is where a buying group or alliance can be of great help. Access to bulk discounts remains one of the biggest advantages for independent practices because buying groups are in a much better position to negotiate with vendors.
The savings and discounts
When choosing between the many buying groups and alliances, consider comparing the savings each one has to offer. Not all will be the same. It might be a good idea to have your top contenders run an audit based on your inventory purchase history. That should give you insight into how much you could save in the future and which buying group would save you the most money. Sometimes it’s not all about the savings. Keep in mind that each group might have specific vendors it works with. If you’re currently working with a certain vendor and you (and your patients) are happy with them, would it really be worth it to switch to another just because the alliance you picked has a slightly better deal with a different vendor?
The important extras
Who offers the best discounts should not be the only deciding factor when it comes to picking an optometry alliance or buying group. Most optometry alliances nowadays offer practice management tools, whether it’s general consulting, marketing, or networking opportunities. Ask yourself which of these areas could do with some improvement and if you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask for a free trial - most alliances offer that “risk-free” option.
Independent practices at times have a tendency to become set in their ways of doing things, essentially closing themselves off to new ideas and trends in the industry. Joining an alliance can be the perfect opportunity to connect with others in the industry and share experience and ideas. A big plus of these groups are the periodic events that they organize. Some are annual conferences, others are more frequent meetings such as dinners, guest talks, and workshops. Sure, there are major industry events like the Vision Expo that you can attend, but these smaller meetings can be a lot more focused on addressing specific challenges faced by independent optometrists. As such, they can be great networking opportunities and a way to share unbiased views and experiences about new products, industry trends, and overall business management. Though there is one thing to keep in mind: location. While some groups have coast to coast geographical spans, others are more local. Inquire how many members the alliance has in the vicinity; also, check where they usually hold their more frequent events. After all, you don’t want to be the only optometrist in an area to be part of one alliance when all your colleagues and local competitors are part of another.
Marketing is another popular service offered by many alliances. While this option probably won’t be your deciding factor in choosing which alliance to work with, it’s worth evaluating. Some offer general marketing strategy consulting; others can connect you with website designers and content creators. This might work well for you if you’re still in your early stages of building your online presence. Because this option would typically come as an add-on or as part of a higher-level membership, it might not be for everyone. And besides the costs, some ECP’s prefer to have greater (hands-on) control over their social media strategy.
The fine print
When comparing your options in terms of membership costs, be sure to read into the fine print. Some alliances will have a fixed monthly fee for their range of services, while others offer different tiers of plans that can run up to as much as $450 a month. Whether those fees are justified ultimately depends on how much value they bring to your practice. Of course, you don’t want to end up paying for a service you won’t use. For an ECP that’s only interested in purchase savings, look for buying groups that don’t come with monthly or annual membership costs. Finally, whichever option you select, always take the time to periodically reevaluate how much your membership is benefiting your business.
Optometry alliances and buying groups are here to stay and will likely continue to expand in the coming years. And they might well be the key to gaining an edge in an industry as dynamic as ours, giving us the tools to be able to face the challenges of being an independent ECP. The competitive pricing and discounts might seem like the most obvious advantage these groups can offer, but in fact, there are a myriad more ways in which they can help your practice excel. Choose the right one for your practice and you will have made a true alliance for long-term success.