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Zabir Ali

Zabir Ali on optometry insights

By Zabir Ali

Managing Director, Wessex Optical

As we embark on a new era of how we access healthcare, the Managing Director of Wessex Optical has a vision to lead the way in his specialist area of optometry.

Zabir Ali is Franchise Partner for four Boots Opticians practices across Hampshire and Dorset. As he sets his sights on opening two more practices this year, Zabir discusses how optometrists are expanding their services to support the healthcare system, and playing their part in the evolution of the high street.

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What first sparked your interest in optometry?

I’ve always liked the thought of helping people; originally, I wanted to be a vet. I was fascinated by eye health and enjoyed working with people; optometry was the perfect job to combine those skills.

I grew up in the most deprived part of Birmingham and I studied optometry at Aston University, because it combined mathematical skills and human biology into one perfect blend of a job.

Whilst doing a placement year with Boots, I had an opportunity to move to a new location, and so I moved to Poole. I wanted to experience living somewhere completely different, and I’m still here on the south coast 14 years down the line.

As a Boots franchisee, what are the benefits of working under the umbrella of such a well- known company?

Currently, there are over 600 practices; a third of them are franchises for Boots run by optometrists and entrepreneurs, like myself. It’s great working for Boots, because it’s such a big name and trusted brand on the high street, with all the buying power to bring in new offers and price points. As an independent franchise, you've also got the benefits of local values and being very community-led. A customer sees Boots on the door, and inside there’s the warmth of a practice that's run by people who genuinely love working there.

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"I'm working on bringing many more hospital-led optician services onto the high street, which means bigger units with multi-disciplinary teams working there, offering a wider range of services for patients."

Wessex Optical is multiple-winner of Boots Opticians Practice of the Year. What made you stand out from over 600 practices to win?

We won Practice of the Year in 2016 for Wimborne, and in 2018 and 2019 for New Milton (the awards didn’t run in 2020). It’s been great to be recognised by the company. We stood out on a number of KPIs, including: customer experience, customer service, internal and external measures, online feedback, sales, growth, community initiatives, and how well our teams enjoy working for us. There are quite a few different elements to these awards and we’re really proud to come out on top. We were also runners up in the national industry Optician Awards in 2018.

What does the future of optometry hold?

It’s been quite an interesting time for opticians, because COVID has really impacted the services that people receive from hospitals and GPs. The hospital system was quite overwhelmed, even prior to the pandemic, and now they’re experiencing even longer delays for simple procedures. We’ve seen a lot of those services being sent out to the community, so we’re picking up many enhanced services on behalf of hospitals.
I’m working on bringing many more hospital-led optician services onto the high street, which means bigger units with multi-disciplinary teams working there, offering a wider range of services for patients. I think that’s a growing trend now, because high streets are ever evolving, and we’ve seen a lot of big retailers leaving units vacant.

Another change is people are wanting to look and feel great, and in glasses we’ve seen a lot more demand for luxury brands. My practices are working with brands like Gucci, to bring high-end designs into market towns, because a lot of people are moving out of London but they still want brands that they recognise from the big cities.

"The equipment is getting more and more sophisticated every year. Scans that previously you'd only be able to access at hospital can now be done by us on the high street."

Managing Director, Wessex Optical

What have been the recent scientific developments in optometry?

The equipment is getting more and more sophisticated every year. Scans that previously you’d only be able to access at hospital can now be done by us on the high street.
The technology in contact lenses has also developed significantly. Eye issues can be identified much further in advance, and contact lenses can slow down the progression of sight deterioration. The approach to eye health is a lot more holistic now, as opposed to previously when the only option was a pair of glasses.

As an optical practice, what role do you have in research and development in the sector?

We’re really privileged as one of Boots’ biggest franchisees on the south coast, we do get to try a lot of new technology. That could be anything from enhancing the customer experience, to new machines for eye testing. We work with suppliers to trial equipment and give feedback to the manufacturers to improve the software and how the tests are performed.

Is there something that not many people know about you?

I’m into holistic therapies; acupuncture, traditional medicine, and I’ve been learning reiki recently. It’s something I decided to learn more about in lockdown, for myself and to help others in a different way.

Who have you always admired?

My parents came to Birmingham from Pakistan in the 1960s. They had nothing; they worked really hard, raised their families, and made sure they had a good education. I really admire their bravery of moving to a country where they didn’t have anything, and making something for themselves and a good future for their kids.