Blind World Magazine


Selling gadgets to those with extremely low vision.





November 06, 2005.
AP Worldstream




Selling gadgets to those with extremely low vision was an optician's plan that was born out of necessity


GREAT Glasses owner A.J. Saper made a living for nearly 30 years filling prescriptions and selling glasses out of his store. He said about 40 independent opticians were operating in Houston when he established his business in 1976. Today he says that the number has dwindled to fewer than 10. He knows that unless he is able to completely reinvent his small business, he may be the next to go.


Traditionally, the optician serves ophthalmologists and optometrists.


They make a diagnosis and recommend a prescription. The optician fills the prescription and sells the patient a pair of glasses.


It's a pretty simple formula.


Saper said that the problem is that in the past four years, the insurance industry has come in and offered the ophthalmologists business opportunities that have crippled independent opticians.


Out of the loop on frames


"The insurance industry has begun to allow doctors to sell frames made by the company of the insurance provider's choice," said Saper. "In return, they offer the doctors $25 per pair of glasses sold. This way the doctor makes money with no capital investment."


This development effectively cut Saper out of the loop.


His revenues dipped nearly 40 percent in less than four years. He didn't need a pair of bifocals to see the writing on the wall.


"I need to make more than $25 per pair to make a living," he said, "I had to try something new."


New partnership


And he did. About two months ago Saper entered into a partnership with fellow optician and consultant Ginny Spalding.


Spalding spent the past 10 years as wholesaler of products designed for people who suffer from extremely low vision. She often toyed with the idea of opening up a storefront. Saper got in touch with her and explained his situation. It was a natural fit.


The colleagues spent about 10 months hammering out the details. Today about 50 percent of the inventory at Great Glasses is dedicated to gadgets designed specifically to help people with extremely low vision improve their quality of life.


The products range from simple and inexpensive items like playing cards with extra-large print, to more costly high-tech options like closed-circuit TVs that allow the visually impaired to read books, magazines and newspapers on a TV screen.


Saper said almost every product allows customers to regain an aspect of their lives that may have been lost for years.


"The problem is: How do we make the general public aware of what we are doing without spending a lot of money on advertising?" Saper said.


Utilizing the media


Jacqueline Taylor, associate region director of the University of Houston Small Business Development Center, laughed when she heard that - because she believes Saper is already doing a pretty good job of answering his own question.


"We always tell our clients that one of the best things that they can do is utilize the media to generate free PR," she said. "It looks like he is already doing that."


Taylor said that any business that drastically changes its business plan after almost three decades is going to face a massive marketing challenge.


"The biggest problem is, he is rebranding his entire business," she said. "Something that is in his favor is that the new market that he is trying to attract is substantial. There is a lot of focus on products and services for the aging population."


Marketing on a shoestring


Taylor said that the key to Great Glasses' success or failure is going to be its creativity when dealing with marketing on a shoestring budget.


She said that there are many ways that it can reach the target demographic on the cheap.


"They could go into nursing homes and community centers where the elderly are and do demonstrations," Taylor advised. "This way, he can show them some of the things that he has to make their lives a little bit easier."


'You don't have to give up'


So far, Saper has limited his marketing to letting the ophthalmologists that he has built a reputation with over the years know about his store's new direction.


He is doing his best to make it clear to them that he has products that significantly increase a person's quality of life even when there is nothing that the most acute optic prescription can do for them.


"I just want people to know that just because you are developing extreme vision problems, you don't have to throw up your hands and say, 'The doctors told me there is nothing else I can do,' " he said. "You don't have to give up."



Source URL: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/business/3440602.




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