Back to the Future Part II: New Competitors Bring New Pressures

Holly Hosford-Dunn
January 31, 2012

Back to the Future posts consider hearing healthcare predictions of Lars Kolind (Oticon) in the late 1990s, published in the final chapter{{1}}[[1]]Jerger JJ, Skafte MD, Kolind L. The future of audiology practice management.  Chapter 21. In Hosford-Dunn H, Roeser R, & Valente, M. (2000). Audiology: Practice Management (1st Ed). NY:  Thieme. pp 481-490.[[1]] of Audiology: Practice Management (1st Ed, 2000).   Post #1 concurred with Dr. Kolind’s prediction/observation that, among other things,  Audiologists are retailers.

Lars Kolind’s Prediction II:  There will be heavy pressure by trading by means of the Internet, driving competition to become fully global and putting those retailers particularly under pressure who do not add genuine value. Why should a consumer enter a shop if genuine additional value is not added?… [the answer is knowledge]…The retailer must develop and apply a concept for total patient care.

Dr. Kolind hit the bull’s eye on Internet competition. The recent, continuing deluge of PSAP instruments marketed directly to consumers is unrelenting and definitely heavy pressure. One trade magazine succumbed early to the pressure by headlining its cover story in knee-jerk, soul-searching fashion: “Are Internet Hearing Aid Sales the Inevitable Future?” , prompting thoughts of Darth Vader taking over the hearing aid market.   The article itself was much more sedate.  It featured views from ADA, BHI and our own Wayne Staab as Hans Solo. All gave reasonable views of a more balanced future.  Not surprisingly, the future is indeed inevitable (duh!) but internet hearing sales are only a part of it.  But–back to Dr Kolind’s prediction– bricks & mortar providers who offer added value are also part of the future.

The “added value” condition deserves discussion.  All direct  sales hang on the Price hook, offering hearing instruments in the $200-$999 range. No question, when Price is pushed,   traditional retailers must offer added value to justify their necessarily higher prices. But, Price is only one of the “4-Ps” of Marketing.  That leaves 3 more Ps to plumb for added value.

Start with P = Price.  Some low ball competitors will self-immolate in downward-spiraling price wars– a normal expectation when many competitors suddenly enter a market in which the same technologies are available to all competitors.  Profit-minded companies with other fish to fry may avoid the flames by leaving the fray.  This may explain why  Best Buy was a flash in the pan.

Now, move on to the other Ps:  Product, Place, Promotion as value-adders.

  • P = Promotion.  MDHearingAid[R] sells instruments at $329.99/pair, touted as “the top rated hearing aid online with thousands of satisfied users.”  It was launched by “an award-winning physician and professor,” who lists his specialty as “Minimally Invasive Facial Plastic Surgery” and his Care Philosophy is:

“The Weekend Facelift – Look 10 Years Younger in 1 Hour – return to work in 1-3 days!”

Wow.  It’s only a matter of time before I open my email and find hearing aids featured in Travel Zoo’s top Ten:

“$1699. China 8-Night Escorted Hearing Aid Vacation w/Air, Save $600, -Incl. Getaway w/Air, Two Personalized Hearing Aids, 60% Off. incl. Weekends.  Charming B&B in Downtown Shanghai. All-incl.  (Roundtrip) w/Breakfast & Spa Credit.”

Comment:  Few, if any, audiologists do face lifts. With the possible exception of Botox parties, I am pressed to come up with a marketing plan that uses cosmetic surgery to increase hearing aid sales revenues.  Medical tourism, maybe:   hearing testing and fitting hearing aids on a round-the-world cruise would allow time for follow-up and administration of the SADL.  But that’s an expensive form of value add.  Better to stay at home and stick with what you know.

Speaking of staying home, Dr. Kolind asks: “Why should a consumer enter a shop if genuine additional value is not added?”  In the real world, audiologists and dispensers who have painstakingly built reputations within their communities as caring, careful, honest, knowledgeable, stable, reliable professionals have already won the value-add contest in the Promotion category.  Build it and nurture it and they will come! The future does not suggest that such providers are going to lose their reputations or their loyal referral and patient bases to the Internet.

To the extent that providers continue to offer  value-add, patients and referrals will continue to come their way.   There are many ways of doing this but this post is getting too long. I will defer consideration of Product and Place as value-add options till next time.  But, so far, my impression is in line with Wayne Staab et al:  Dr. Kolind’s prediction that only traditional retailers who offer “genuine additional value” will survive  is not that hard a nut to crack, given the new competition.  Please tune in again as we keep cracking this nut.

Photo courtesy of Starlight Laser

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