As people around the world retreated into the safety of their homes this year, consumers have begun to embrace telehealth and teledenstistry. We chat with Smile Direct Club’s president international, Kay Oswald, about how the unicorn retailer has risen to the challenge, his insights into the future of retail – and what it’s like talking to customers who are afraid of the dentist. Inside Retail: Can you tell me how Smile Direct Club works? Kay Oswald: We are a tailored telehealth and tele
d teledentistry platform for teeth straightening. It’s really interesting because pre-Covid telehealth in general was a big novelty in a lot of countries and there were a lot of question marks. As unfortunate as this pandemic has been, it has really helped raise a lot of awareness for telemedicine, telehealth and teledentistry. It’s raised awareness of different providers and solutions, in our case. So, essentially, we’re the pioneers in the direct-to-consumer telehealth and teledentistry teeth straightening business. The idea that we were founded upon back in 2014 was very simple: it was really the idea that everyone deserves a smile that they love. And cost or access to care, affordability or convenience, shouldn’t be prohibitors, it shouldn’t keep people from getting their ideal smile and the straight teeth that they are looking for. So in a nutshell, you could say that our mission is to democratise access to make it affordable and convenient. That’s how we started back in 2014 in the US. We started looking at international expansion after I came on board in 2018. For customers, there are two ways to get started on your journey. One is you can order an at-home impression kit through smiledirectclub.com. It gets sent to your home and you take your own impressions and send them back to us. We have a network of affiliated, locally registered dentists and orthodontists that review all the cases. They create the treatment plans that are then produced in the US and shipped directly to our customers doorstep. That is one option. The other one is you can visit one of our small shops, which are essentially retail locations. In Australia, we have registered dental nurses and retail staff to do the 3D scans with an intraoral scanner. Those scans are then uploaded to our patient cloud to be accessed by our dental technicians. They create the treatment plans, again being overseen by a registered dentist, which are then produced in the US before being shipped directly to the doorstep of our customers. In the past, there were problems, not only with affordability but also with physical access to care and the important point about our model is that these issues are eliminated. In the US, we have a lot of states that don’t have dentists and orthodontists locally so it’s really a barrier to teeth straightening. Now, during times of Covid, people can’t really leave their homes unless it’s something medically urgent. That’s where the real benefit of our platform and the opportunity to do everything from the comfort of your own home comes into play. You can order everything and then use the teledentistry platform to engage with the dentists through video chat and email functions so you don’t have to go to a dentist, but instead you can do everything online through our platform. IR: Speaking of Covid, how would you describe the past few months for the business? KO: Very interesting. I think, for us, Covid was a great opportunity to get out some of the strong sides of our business and in our culture overall. It’s all about learning, right? So when everything started, I was in Hong Kong because we had just launched in December, 2019. In January, when Covid started, customers in Hong Kong, and the population in general, reacted to it calmly and professionally. They had dealt with SARS 15-17 years ago and they reacted very differently to other markets. But then as everything swept across the across the globe, it was really interesting to see the impact it had on our business. And we needed to adjust our business model pretty rapidly. One important point for us was to really ensure the safety and health of our team members and our customers. In March, we decided to close all of our retail locations worldwide, again, with the exception of Hong Kong, but we shut all the shops down and shifted our business entirely to those impression kits. So in all the markets where we had a very active consumer base, marketing was really focusing on these impression kits and this model meant that customers didn’t have to leave the house. They ordered the impression kits and we organised FedEx or AusPost to collect from their doorstep. Everything else after that happens through our teledentistry platform where the customer can then engage with the with the dentist remotely, and they can upload photos, ask questions about progress or anything to do with their treatment. So, as hard as it was on us as an organisation, overall, we were very fortunate that we were able to offer impression kits as a solution for our customers to start treatment and go through the entire experience without having to leave the house. Telehealth has been on the rise since Covid. Image: Supplied IR: Smile Direct Club was quite fortunate that there are several parts of the business that just lend themselves to the pandemic. You’re direct to consumer and an e-commerce platform as well, so I think you were in a very good position. KO: I agree one hundred per cent. I think that was one point. The other thing that was really interesting was that we were able to quickly pivot and support some of the frontline health worker efforts, because we have one of the largest 3D printing facilities in all of North America. We started shifting our production to face shields and other PPE that we were able to distribute over 55 000 face shields in North America. So, as I said earlier, for us it’s all about learning and being a disrupter, being nimble and able to quickly react to new circumstances. We could do that on the consumer side, but also in the broader community as were we able to interact with the public and help out during the peak of COVID. IR: Is there anything that you guys changed during this period of time, to cater to the consumer, that could become a long-term strategy? KO: Yeah, absolutely. First and foremost, we piloted new health and safety operating procedures in Hong Kong back in January and then subsequently rolled them out across the world. Things like wearing face shields and masks, sanitising our retail locations from top to bottom after every single appointment and spacing out the appointments to allow for a very thorough cleaning will stay for the short-term. Also the way that we’ve been engaging and interacting not only with our consumers, but also with over 250 affiliated dentists and orthodontists in our network, enabling them to use our teledentistry platform to boost overall engagement with their regular patients. We’ve opened up our platform to North America. Other dentists have been able to start using this platform to interact with their patients to reduce the risk of anybody getting affected or any sort of exposure to Covid-19. That’s been working really well for us and we saw a lot of appreciation in the dental community around this. IR: Can you tell me about the dentistry market? It seems like it’s quite a traditional and conservative market and there hasn’t been a lot of disruption. But I’d like to hear what your thoughts are on it. KO: When we launched the business back in 2014 we pushed forward into a really interesting niche. And from a business standpoint, the founding pillars were access to affordable, convenient care with no entry barriers just because of somebody’s pocketbook. And, obviously, that has caused a lot of reaction, especially from organised dentistry. We’ve seen a lot of legislators that suddenly found a very strong interest in teledentistry and had very strong opinions that they didn’t have before. A lot of them seem to be very well funded. It’s definitely created some reactions in that space but what’s important for us is to focus on our aspiration to increase access to care so customers who couldn’t afford the costs of traditional orthodontia, they couldn’t spend $6,000-$8,000 for traditional orthodontia, but are able to spend a hundred dollars a month or so on their treatment plan for 24 months get access to care. So it’s really about increasing and growing the pie, rather than taking anything away from traditional orthodontists. But as every disrupter in any industry knows, there are always some very strong reactions. The standout point for us is that we are able to pivot quickly and defend the space we’ve disrupted. And there’s also an educational component as well in creating awareness about why what we’re doing is different and that teledentistry is just as good as traditional methods. Since we’re doing something new in this field, it was great that we were finally awarded a patent earlier this year on our smart shop. It’s great to have a strong patent around our intellectual property and how we run our shops which includes the entire customer journey from scheduling appointments, confirming those appointments, how we perform scans, how we generate the treatment plans and how we interact with the dentists through our platform. This patent really allows us to strengthen our position, to bring affordable care to our customers, but also allows us to grow further and use this pattern as we expand our business around the globe. IR: In terms of the patent, did you experience any issues with your intellectual property? KO: Well, they say imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? Probably around 2016-2017, we started seeing a number of companies in the US, but also in Europe and in Asia Pacific, that thought that they could get into the space by just copying and pasting what we were doing. Sometimes even to the extent that they were using our imagery, our marketing content, and our before and after photos, just to get started. We very strongly believe in fair competition, but at some point, we just had to start doing something about it and this patent is one very strong step in that direction. We were the pioneer in this space, we started it, but we really embrace competition. And again, for us, it’s all about affordability and access to care, but it has to happen in a fair manner. There have to be some guardrails around it which is why we pushed for this happen. IR: Can you tell me a little bit about your overseas expansion plans? How long have you been in Australia for now? KO: We launched May 29 in 2019. That was our first day of trading in Sydney, in Martin Place. We’ve been in Australia for a year now. To be honest, it’s been a phenomenal ride, especially in Australia and New Zealand. Australia was our first market and we launched the UK in July. So two months later we launched New Zealand in September, Ireland in October and we went to Hong Kong in December of last year. We launched Germany in February, we launched Germany right in Covid, which was very unfortunate so three weeks in, we had to shut everything down and relaunch it again last week, but we still have a very strong expansion plan. We launched Singapore recently, which was great. It was the first time that we that we really launched a whole market that remotely. The training happened remotely between the US and our team in Singapore, the hiring, recruiting, onboarding—everything through Zoom. We launched our first shop in harbourfront, partnering with a with a large dental clinic in Singapore and we are looking to expand into a couple of additional locations in Singapore. And then the other one, as I said, Hong Kong was a big launch for us back in December. What was really exciting about Hong Kong was that we also launched our first Asia retail partnership in Hong Kong with Watson’s—essentially, the Chemist Warehouse of Hong Kong and south-east Asia and they’re in big in Europe, too. So we launched our first two shop concepts with them and we are looking to expand that further in Hong Kong in the coming weeks. We have a very successful partnership in Australia with Chemist Warehouse as well and we’re also operating a few shop locations across Australia. So overall, we’re really excited for how our international markets have been performing. There are a lot of similarities in terms of consumer behaviour and consumer needs between the US, Western Europe and Asia-Pacific. But then again, every market is very distinctively different in terms of what customers expect. One of our truths is, ‘Be the customer’. So we’re always really trying to understand the customer first before we go into new markets, and adapt our business model accordingly. In Singapore, for instance, we’re partnering with a dental clinic and have our shops inside a clinic. In Australia, we were following a shop model like Chemist Warehouse, plus some retail locations in in Parramatta, for instance, where we’re in Westfield. IR: What were some of the insights that you gathered around Hong Kong customers, given they had already experienced SARS? KO: The biggest one for me personally, and us as an organisation, was the comfort of people wearing face masks. From day one, 20 per cent of the population started wearing face masks. It wasn’t a big political debate, people were just doing it and they went on with their lives. Also, our shop team were able to complete our standard operating procedures around health and safety within two days and began implementing it in record time. That’s been the blueprint for us globally to ensure the highest level of safety and sanitation for our team members and customers. Welcome to one of Smile Direct Club’s Scan Suites. Image: Supplied IR: What are your physical locations like? KO: We call them Scan Suites. So inside our small shops, we have anywhere from one to four Scan Suites, which are little rooms with a 3D intraoral scanners that we use to create 3D images of our customer’s teeth. It usually takes around 30 minutes or now with COVID usually around 45 minutes. But essentially, in those in those meetings, in those conversations with the customer, we go through their medical history and we make sure that they really understand what we’re doing. We try to understand their chief complaint which is really the most important piece for us. So is it a crowding problem? Is it a spacing problem? What is the number one thing that our customers want to have fixed? And as we complete those questionnaires, we start taking the scans which usually take around five or six minutes. Those scans are then directly uploaded to the cloud to the teledentistry platform. We round the whole appointment off with answering any questions that the customer might have. So it’s very quick for the customer and it’s focused on the customer experience, explaining what the dentists that are reviewing the cases do and how the customer can engage and interact with those. IR: The customer journey must be very interesting when it comes to health, especially dentistry, because most people fell some level of anxiety going to a dentist. KO: There are a lot of people that are intimidated by a dentist, right, you come into a dental practice, and every you know, everything smells a certain way. And the dentist is dressed a certain way. So it’s overall an intimidating experience. Within our small shops, it’s the polar opposite, everything is very friendly. It’s really more like a retail experience and our staff are dressed like retail staff. We want to understand the ’emotional why’ and why the customer is a ‘smile hider’. It’s such an emotional, high impact experience. And that’s why we’re also taking the time to engage and interact with the customer in one on one settings so that we can really understand what it is that the customer wants to fix. Because they’re not coming in because they have a toothache but because they really want to do something for themselves. It’s really important to them and they want to feel better. So it can be a very deeply emotional interaction with our team members. So again, that’s why we have the conversation before we actually go through the scan to explain the overall journey and what happens and then to understand what it is that the customer wants to get out of the treatment.