Specsavers to enter hearing industry with over 300 clinics

Comes after the ACCC put the multi-billion dollar industry on notice.

Specsavers will open more than 300 hearing clinics as it enters the multi-billion dollar audiology market in Australia, an industry that was recently put on notice by the competition watchdog for prioritising hefty sales over patient care.

The clinics will progressively roll out to Specsavers' existing chain of 324 optical stores in a five-year expansion that will cost the business $30 million.

"Our aim is to open as many as 100 audiology businesses in the coming 12 to 18 months," says Darrel Magna, the executive director of Specsaver Audiology.

"One in six Australians experience hearing loss, yet only one in three does anything about it. The earlier we detect and treat hearing loss, the less of an impact the problem will have on a person's hearing long-term."

Hearing aids can cost between $1500 and $15,000, and the price of the same model hearing aid can fluctuate by as much as $3000 between some stores. Specsavers says its hearing aids will cost from $1495 to $5995, and it has gained accreditation from the government's hearing services program. This means, in strict cases of eligibility, it will be able to provide hearing aids at no cost like many of its rivals.

But Specsavers' entrance comes as the market has been put on notice by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The ACCC detailed a sales-first culture in its report on the industry, where commissions can be greater than $2000 a sale and some elderly patients have had to remortgage their homes for high-end hearing aids.

"The ACCC remains concerned about sales-based remuneration arrangements for clinicians that create incentives to supply hearing devices that are unnecessary, or more expensive than a consumer needs," a spokesperson told CHOICE. "We continue to actively monitor the industry for breaches of the Australian Consumer Law."

Specsavers says its sales are not commission-based as each of its audiology businesses will be operated by franchisees, effectively making them the owners. But this does not necessarily preclude its stores from accepting "all-expenses paid travel to overseas conferences and consumer electronics" from the manufacturers of hearing aids; an industry practice the ACCC found to be commonplace.

Establishing a network of hearing clinics will help Specsavers compete in the growing audiology industry – hearing loss costs Australians an estimated $11.7 billion a year. If it achieves its target of opening 324 stores, it would become one of the largest hearing clinic providers in Australia, competing against the government-owed Australian Hearing (490 stores), National Hearing Care (250 stores) and Audio Clinic (more than 200 stores). Within the span of little more than a month Specsavers has already opened six audiology clinics nationally.

Australia already represents the second-largest market for Specsavers and its value to the business is only set to appreciate as the country's growing population ages. The Australian arm of Specsavers made £422 ($AU712) million in sales in its 2016 financial year, behind only its home market of the UK – and this is before its launch of local audiology clinics. 

As of 2006, one-in-six Australians experience some hearing loss, but the number of people affected will rise to one-in-four by 2050, representing an opportunity for the business of hearing clinicians.

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Update, 6 October: This article was updated to include commentary from an ACCC spokesperson.