The Pearle Vision eye care chain was founded in 1961 in Savannah, Ga., by an optometrist named Stanley Pearle. It began expanding nationally in the 1970s and was acquired by the U.K. conglomerate Grand Metropolitan in 1985. In 1996 it was bought by Cole National, which in turn was sold to Milan-based Luxottica in 2004. The Luxottica Group, with 2018 revenues of just over $10 billion, is the world’s largest eyewear company.
Somewhere along the line — Doug Zarkin, Pearle Vision’s vice president and chief marketing officer, dates it from the early 2000s — Pearle’s image of itself, and the way it was perceived by the market, became unclear, partly because of a heavy emphasis on promotional pricing. Zarkin, an experienced retail marketing executive, joined the company in 2012 with a mandate to turn things around.
He began charting his course forward by looking back. “I talked to a number of our competitors. I also insisted on talking to what I call ‘the ex-girlfriends’ — patients that had fired us, customers that had fired us, franchisees who had parted ways with us — to understand what we were missing, what we weren’t doing well and what expectations weren’t being met,” he says.
“What made this business the premier optical retail brand in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s was its commitment to care. So, beginning in 2013, we refocused on a message of providing the highest quality eye care. Along the way, we have been able to greatly reduce our reliance on promotions in general and eliminate what I call ‘opioid-addictive’ promotions like buy one, get one free.”
And it worked — Zarkin says 2018 was a record year, with the highest top line and bottom line in a decade, the largest number of locations and the largest number of new eye care centers.
THE POWER OF LISTENING
While Zarkin and his colleagues have worked hard to re-focus on the principles that enabled Pearle Vision’s success in the late 20th century, they are acutely aware that this is not, in fact, the late 20th century.
It’s a different world, and it plays by different rules. Once upon a time, Zarkin points out, if you had a disappointed customer, they would call the location and deal with the doctor, or the manager or whoever, one on one. “Now,” he says, “with social media, they can tell the world.”
One way companies evaluate what their customers are telling the world is by calculating their net promoter score. (Put simply: Ask 100 customers if they’d recommend you to somebody else. Subtract the number who say no from those who say yes. The result is your net promoter score. It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much.)
Zarkin regards this as useful — but limited. To get more information about what the market thinks about Pearle Vision, he works with online reputation management specialists Reputation.com. “What we do is help companies look at the whole omnichannel,” says Reputation.com CEO Joe Fuca, including in-store and website traffic, data on social media, data being pulled in messaging off of social media and multiple other places.
Reputation.com delivers what Fuca calls an actions product. “Doug Zarkin is one of those people who, once he gets feedback, will act on it,” he says. “With what we give him, he can make quick decisions, distribute the workload to employees within the company, put a service level time on it and solve a problem.”
THE POWER OF RESPONSE
The first thing Reputation.com did for Pearle Vision was help it understand the world of feedback. “Many brands, ours included, have relied very heavily on the net promoter score,” Zarkin says. “NPS is a good number, but it’s an incomplete data stream, in that it doesn’t give you enough qualitative information. It will tell you if you did a good job or a bad job, but it doesn’t get into why or how — what was good or bad about it.”
He says the Reputation.com portal not only provides feedback from across the omnichannel spectrum, it also enables Pearle Vision to communicate on outlets like Google My Business about how and what the company is doing. “Our optometrists are tasked with responding,” he says, “and so having an interface that allows us to do that is key. It’s allowed us to regain a measure of stewardship over our reputation.”
The combination of feedback and its own metrics gives Zarkin and his colleagues visibility into problems in a given location and actionable, measurable ways to deal with them. One internal metric, for example, is exam volume — how many eye examinations a Pearle Vision Center performs in a given period of time. “If you have a bad doctor reputation score,” he says, “chances are that that location will have a challenge with eye exam volume.”
The reputation scores aren’t just random data points for Pearle Vision, they’re a key performance indicator. “When we go into an eye care center that’s struggling, one of the first thing we’re going to do is pull up their reputation score and see how the center is doing with patients. Because we know that converting a patient into a retail [i.e. happy and glasses-buying] patient is really how Pearle Vision grows its business,” Zarkin says.
“We understand that trust is built both in the exam room and on the retail floor. We also understand that trust is built through a series of small interactions. Reputation allows us to directly determine if those small moments that formulate loyalty are happening. If you have a poor optometrist reputation score, you know that the problem lies with what’s happening in the chair. It puts way, way too much pressure on having to convert every single person when the patient’s leaving the doctor not feeling great about their experience.”
That kind of insight is proving valuable to Pearle Vision franchise owners, even when it’s not welcome news. “In that exam room is the doctor and the patient, and it’s a very intimate experience,” Zarkin says. “How does a licensed owner who is employing a doctor, or subleasing out to a doctor, have any idea what’s going on in that room? This is like having closed-circuit TV. It’s allowing them to train, teach and coach. It’s also allowing them to triage, and frankly it’s allowing them to be more profitable, because they’re delivering a better experience.”
Looking out beyond the eye chart, Zarkin suggests this kind of attention to customer interaction and its effect could be beneficial to other areas of retail.
“We have been able to refine the experience, which has allowed us to have a very high positive value equation without having to discount. If I were a big-box retailer, I would take a controlled set of stores, cut my merchandising, and cut my promotions in half. Then I would take those dollars and reinvest them in associate training.”
Peter Johnston, a freelance writer and editor in the New York City area, can be reached at email@example.com.