Americans buy everything from burgers to coffee to karate lessons at franchises. They're convenient, predictable and often cheap. So why not try franchising a service most of us avoid like a trip to the dentist? Actually, it is a trip to the dentist. Meet Vital Dent, purveyors of franchise dentistry.
Standing convention on its head--usually U.S. firms are the ones franchising their businesses in Europe--Vital Dent, based in Las Rozas de Madrid, Spain, launched its first U.S. location in New York City in December 2004. (Privately held Vital Dent operates some 250 offices in Spain, Portugal and Italy, most of them franchises.) Since then, the company has opened nine more dental offices there, all with an identical high-gloss, minimalist look, and seven more are under construction in Florida and Massachusetts. In the U.S., Vital Dent plans to draw traffic by offering new patients free cleaning, X rays and dental exams. Then it hopes they will return for higher-margin procedures such as dental implants and orthodontics. The stores have longer hours than traditional dentists' offices and are open even on weekends. They also offer patients financing and payment plans.
Vital Dent's founder, Ernesto Colman Mena, believes he will get people in the door by emphasizing convenience, reasonable prices and new technology, including the latest in dental implants. "That's what works in Spain," Colman says through a translator. In 2005 Vital Dent was second in Spain only to Burger King in attracting franchise investment, according to Franchisa, an industry consulting firm. And he hopes a similar strategy will appeal to Americans looking for an alternative to the old-fashioned neighborhood dentist. "The United States market offers a great opportunity," says Colman.
There is plenty of room for a new concept in U.S. dental care: 67% of dental practices in the U.S. are still run as traditional solo practices, according to Roger Levin, an industry management consultant in Owings Mills, Md. But Vital Dent will have to overcome more than just convention to find its way in the U.S. The new implant procedures Colman touts are not exclusive to the company. Vital Dent's prices, although below those of high-end dentists, are not much lower than the typical rates in most major cities (and like many traditional dentists, Vital Dent doesn't participate directly in insurance plans). According to a 2005 year-end survey published in the journal Dental Economics, the median price of a surface filling was $112; Vital Dent charges about $100.
The idea of dental franchises is not entirely new to the U.S. Several chains opened in the 1980s only to founder later, Levin says. They failed because of patient loyalty to the traditional private-office model--and Vital Dent faces its own obstacles. For example, any franchisee who is not a licensed dentist must contract with dentists or dental groups to provide services, a huge cost on top of the franchise fees paid to Vital Dent, which alone can run to $600,000. That's a lot to ask in an industry in which a new practice can easily be established for far less than $500,000, according to Tyson Steele, a dental marketing consultant in Eugene, Ore. "It's a tough business model," Steele says.