Four Specsavers optometrists who emerged as the leaders of an internal contact lens initiative enjoyed a four-day trip to Japan where they gained insight into the provenance of the contact lenses they supply in-store. Specsavers Australia & New Zealand Head of Contact Lenses Reah Armstrong, who accompanied the optometrists on the ‘Big in Japan’ trip, reports on what the group learned about easyvision contact lens manufacturer Menicon and the fascinating cultural differences they observed in the Japanese contact lens retail market.

In Japan, the cherry blossom symbolises renewal and fresh starts. From 26 to 29 March, at the height of the cherry blossom season, four optometrists – Roland Tan, Optometry Partner at Specsavers Hornsby, NSW; Stephanie Doan, Optometry Partner at Specsavers Joondalup, WA; Peter Bui, Optometrist at Specsavers Mulgrave, VIC; and Kevin Sun, Optometrist at Specsavers Waterford, WA – were given unprecedented access to Menicon’s research, manufacturing and retail sites, offering them a unique opportunity to refresh their approach to contact lenses in-store.

Menicon was born from one man’s curiosity. Founder Kyoichi Tanaka first heard about hard contact lenses in the 1950s from the wife of a US Army officer. Kyoichi became fascinated with how contact lenses worked and set up a studio to hand cut and polish prototype lenses, which he tested in his own eyes. After some refinement, he created the first corneal contact lenses in Japan and subsequently founded Menicon.

Menicon is still famed for its dedication to innovation, quality and precision. A testament to this is the location of the company’s research and development and manufacturing sites; positioning the facilities in the outskirts of Nagoya, a mountainous and rural area away from heavy industry, ensures clean air and water supply.

The two manufacturing sites produce two contact lens ranges that Specsavers recently launched into the Australian and New Zealand market: easyvision Alea, a daily silicone hydrogel with innovative packaging that aids with handling and hygiene, and easyvision Orba, a family of monthly silicone hydrogel lenses with a unique multifocal design that uses decentred near zones to provide improved visual comfort. The two sites produce up to 300,000 lenses per day, relying entirely on precision robotics. It is impressive that the first person to touch the contact lens is the wearer.

The Menicon retail experience provided the most eye-opening insights of the trip. Menicon has 45 dedicated optical retail stores in Japan designed solely for the fit, teach, aftercare and dispensing of contact lenses. Each store works with an ophthalmologist who is responsible for performing eye tests, however, the retail staff are educated in the various features and benefits of the lenses. As such, they can talk confidently about the most suitable lens for the customer’s needs before they even see the ophthalmologist. The retail staff were also able to demonstrate the innovative packaging used for easyvision Alea and easyvision Magic (another Menicon contact lens that Specsavers stocks) and explain its handling and hygiene benefits, which helped to enhance customers’ confidence in the product. After seeing the ophthalmologist, customers could sign up to receive contact lenses on a subscription basis, which included ongoing aftercare.

In between touring Menicon’s stores and facilities, the winners of the Big in Japan trip enjoyed a number of social and Japanese cultural activities, including a visit to the Tokyo Imperial Palace and a traditional tea ceremony.

While there are many cultural differences between Australia and New Zealand and Japan, customers essentially want the same thing: choice. Contact lens usage is prevalent enough in Japan to warrant standalone retail stores. While this may not be the right direction for Australia and New Zealand, increasing the knowledge and skills of team members so that they can have more informed conversations with customers is a positive step towards ensuring patients understand the freedom that contact lenses can offer them.

Comments from the optometrists

What were the highlights of the trip?

Stephanie Doan: Gaining an understanding of the history of Menicon and how much they have invested into creating and perfecting each lens design. It gives me great confidence in their products. To have such technologically advanced machinery and to be able to offer great lenses at such affordable prices is a remarkable feat and well in line with Specsavers’ ethos.

Peter Bui: Touring the contact lens factory and seeing how much research and technology is involved in manufacturing each lens. I also learnt a lot from meeting all the Menicon representatives, including Mark Whibley and Hajime Miyauchi. I was impressed with the dedication and pride each member displayed to their craft. The knowledge they shared will be invaluable to my own professional development.

What surprised you during the trip?

Kevin Sun: The idea of a retail store purely for contact lenses was unbelievable to me. It made me realise that there is so much more we can do to educate and encourage patients so that they can experience contact lenses.

Peter Bui: The biggest surprise to me was that Menicon caters not only to human customers but also to our four-legged friends, having pioneered the use of contact lenses and IOLs in animal ophthalmology. So it was made clear to me that whomever the customer, the company places a big emphasis on innovation and strives to have their products deliver superior vision – all while ensuring safety remains paramount.

What lessons will you take back to use in-store?

Stephanie Doan: The culture of contact lenses in Japan is very different to Australia. I took away a lot from observing the contact lens pre-dispensing conversation, particularly the open discussion of price, features and benefits. Actively demonstrating the innovative easyvision Alea and Magic handling and packaging over conventional packing will also have a better impact and improve the patient’s experience and confidence in the product.

Kevin Sun: I have already started to identify more patients who could benefit from contact lenses by ensuring I am asking targeted questions during history taking. This also allows me to explain how contact lenses can help them in areas that they may never even have considered before.

Final thoughts?

Roland Tan: I have been inspired by the teamwork, attention to detail, structure and pursuit of perfection that I observed while in Japan. These qualities were displayed in Menicon’s disciplined and meticulous hygiene standards and also in the amazing, fully-automated process they use to manufacture easyvision Alea. It is easy to see how they are making contact lenses with their own Japanese passion.

Kevin Sun: It was great to meet the people behind the scenes who ensure a smooth contact lens experience for our patients in-store. The peace of mind in knowing the quality of the contact lenses patients receive from Menicon gives me great confidence in recommending Menicon products.

Stephanie Doan: It was a fantastic experience. It’s great to be able to work so closely with a contact lens company that has such a wealth of history and experience. The Big in Japan trip was rewarding and inspiring.