Alcon Laboratories Inc., a manufacturer of ophthalmic surgery equipment and vision care lenses, has a sharp focus on digital commerce. But its digital scope is also wide-ranging, as if the company were focusing its digital strategy through a wide-angle lens.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based subsidiary of Switzerland’s Novartis AG launched its first e-commerce site two years ago in Brazil, and followed with a site for the United States in November 2016.
Online sales, at MyAlconStore.com, are showing strong growth, and the e-commerce sites are generating positive feedback from customers—the ophthalmologists, surgery centers and hospitals that purchase its surgical equipment, and the optometrists and vision care clinics that purchase its eyewear lenses and contact lenses, says Julie Collins, global head of e-commerce.
“The future is bright,” she says, using a preferred phrase she repeated during a recent interview.
Collins isn’t free to specify the volume of Alcon’s e-commerce sales. But she says the value of digital commerce for Alcon goes far beyond the online sales transactions.
“E-commerce transactions are just the price of entry,” she says. “Nobody gets excited anymore if you can do that.”
At Alcon, she adds, “We’re looking across the full spectrum of digital commerce capabilities.”
Collins sees its e-commerce platform as a base for not only growing geographically, but also for giving Alcon’s customers the latest and greatest in the way of customer service and market intelligence—from predictive insights on market trends for stocking the hottest products, to the capability to accept drone deliveries in areas as crowded as the New York City neighborhood where Collins directs Alcon’s e-commerce team.
Alcon started on its digital commerce journey carefully—starting out with a “minimally viable” e-commerce product, but one that had the technical capability to grow internationally and handle digital content and commerce for the highly complex business of marketing, selling and delivering surgical equipment and eye care lenses.
The manufacturer checked out a number of e-commerce technology offerings, and chose the SAP Hybris platform from business software maker SAP SE. The choice fit nicely with the SAP enterprise resource planning system Alcon was already running, but the manufacturer also chose it for the flexibility and ability to scale up to meet Alcon’s needs, Collins says. The SAP Hybris platform has been recognized by technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. for having a “microservices agility layer” designed with application programming interfaces, or APIS, that enables Hybris to extend multiple individual applications in ways that better serve online customers.
The integration with Alcon’s SAP ERP, for example, provides good support for displaying contract pricing as well as other content personalized for individual customers, Collins says. Alcon’s deployment of Hybris, for which it worked with systems integrator Deloitte Digital, required some customization but incurred no difficulties, she says.
It also provides Alcon with an improved capability for monitoring shipments to each customer, enabling it to better manage automatic replenishment of products as requested by customers.
“As we grow, we’ll add more capability,” she says. “We’re looking forward to developing a more omnichannel strategy, with better business decisions based on insight on how our products are used.”
“We’ll share that data with customers, to improve their inventory management,” she adds. “The new world of e-commerce will not be passive, but shift from passive to proactive.”
With artificial intelligence technology integrated with Alcon’s e-commerce platform, for example, it could note that a client optometrist was getting a sudden spike in orders of a particular type of contact lens and automatically trigger the e-commerce system to ship more of that lens type to that optometrist’s office. The same system could also use additional information on the geographical market in which an optometrist operates. “It might know that it’s prom season, and automatically trigger email messages to every teenage girl in the optometrist’s database between the ages of 14 and 18 with an offer to try color contact lenses.”
But Collins also has her eye on the long-term benefits that she expects digital commerce to bring, even though it’s not clear where things may be heading. With a capable digital technology platform, she says, Alcon will be in a position to take advantage of whatever develops along the lines of augmented reality, AI, blockchain and drone deliveries.
“Many people are exploring new areas, including on the diagnostics side,” she says. One example could be using digital technology to view how new surgical equipment works on a virtual eyeball that displays the physiology a surgeon needs to work on.
She also sees the practical side of drone deliveries ordered online, even in a crowded urban area like New York. “It’s crowded on New York streets, but there are plenty of food carts all over—who’s to say we couldn’t also have drone-landing spots? If one of my client doctors needs more contact lenses right away, instead of getting a cross-town shipment on the congested streets, my doctor could get a drone delivery.”
As Collins ponders the future course of digital commerce opportunities, she’s not expecting any particular course. But she says it will be crucial to be operating on a digital technology platform that can quickly adjust to opportunities that come about.
“It won’t be one thing or another, but a myriad of things—not a bull’s eye but a lot of different solutions that come together,” Collins says. “I need a software-developing company in partnership with us to solve such challenges.”
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