Huge corporations grab headlines, but small businesses drive the American economic engine. Unfortunately, new independent optical retailers are at best stagnant. One reason is that the characteristics of those entering the profession have changed. Today’s optometry graduates face different challenges from their predecessors. This generation has experienced the Great Recession. They’ve seen banks crumble and huge amounts of public money spent to bail out those considered too big to fail. They have huge school loans to repay, and the cost of going into business would simply push them deeper into debt, some to the tune of over a quarter million dollars.
If that weren’t enough, this generation tends to be risk adverse. Instead of taking the chance of opening a business, they look for a job that will pay them well enough to meet their expenses and begin paying off their debt with the hope that someday they’ll be able to open that office. The practice model in this country is changing, too. ODs are finding their way into MD practices where they are often employees, although some will find partnership arrangements.
Opticianry businesses have been affected to a much worse degree. When chain retailing became popular in the ’70s, independent opticianry offices that had no refractionist on the premises were hit hard, and over the years, those have steadily declined. Like most ODs, opticians were never trained to own a business, so they tend not to be good business people. Add to this the same ingredients that optometry graduates face, and you can understand why new opticianry businesses are not opening.
Why is this important? According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses make up 99.7% of U.S. employer firms. They are also responsible for providing 63% of net new private-sector jobs and 98% of businesses exporting goods. Small businesses are the platform that supports the middle class, and if Americans want to keep the middle class alive and well, there need to be good jobs available…and the majority of these come from small businesses such as retail optical offices.
What can our industry do? If we’re really serious about maintaining the vitality of our professions and supporting our country’s future economic well-being, our industry needs to develop programs that help opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists establish new businesses and thrive. This might be in partnership with government or it might be done solely by our industry. Some companies have already made some efforts to help optical business owners learn how to run their offices better, but what’s really needed are programs that help young professionals become new business owners. Without this effort, the overall decline in small optical businesses will continue.
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