R.I.P. Optical Retail is Dead
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R.I.P. Optical Retail is Dead

Views: 0     Author: Mark Graham     Publish Time: 2022-01-19      Origin: Site

R.I.P. Optical Retail is Dead

· Published on June 18, 2018

June 15, 2018: Mark Graham, Vice President, Visionary Mentors

According to a few too many of my professional acquaintances on Facebook, “Optical Retail is Dead.” It might surprise you, but this comment is not new to me. Having been in the optical business for over 40 years, I’ve heard the demise of the industry many times before, yet 42 years later, optical retail is still thriving for those who understand and adapt to the constantly changing dynamics of retail. The key word — “Adapt.”

In the 1980’s it was CONTACT LENSES that would kill the frame business and, by extension - retail opticians. In a fit of brilliance frame manufacturers (many of them American) decided to accessorize the optical frame by adding fashion designer names to them - Gloria Vanderbilt Givenchy, Bill Class, Elizabeth Arden and so many others — it made my head explode but, I dutifully sold all of them to my retail accounts. In the end - optical retail survived and opticians, previously used to selling the Universal Corsair, Art Craft Leading Lady or Martin Copland 1017 had to adapt and add “Eyewear Fashion Consultant” to their list of professional talents. Eyewear morphed from a medical corrective device to a fashion accessory.

In the 1990’s consumer attention turned to LASIK SURGERY as the quintessential replacement for all things vision related. No more need for contacts and the expensive cleaning solutions and no more need for eyewear with the over-priced, undervalued designer labels stamped on their left temples. Once again - fears of the demise of optical retail were unfounded and smart opticians and optometrists adapted to the changing dynamics of optical technology and — survived — even flourished.

Ok — you get my drift. But, the common complaint in 2018 is not focused on technological advancements but completely on PRICE. One of my followers lamented that “there’s a race to the bottom,” while another noted that “Warby Parker is killing us,” or “Zenni is my biggest competition,” and of course numerous comments noting “the end of optical retail.” Every one of them blaming price as the reason for their doom and gloom attitude.

What’s an optical retailer to do?

For starters — STOP competing on PRICE!!! You will lose every time. Do you like a good, juicy steak -- maybe a rib eye? Ruth’s Chris or Rustler Steak house? Both can serve up the same cut of beef but at vastly different prices. What’s the driving factor behind the success of each of those restaurants? I contend that it’s the perfect combination of the retail experience, product and engagement.

Many optical retail stores offer the same or similar products as you do. And, chances are - those same products are also available online for less. If the only thing your customers can hope for is a product, then you’re in direct competition with every other retailer online or down the street. This puts you in a bidding war with Target, Costco and Lens Crafters, Walmart. You can’t win!

Any business plan that relies solely on discounts or low prices to set themselves apart, ultimately leads to low margins and eventually insolvency. Short term, you might see a sales bump but long term you’ll see disaster.


For some the retail shopping experience is directly tied to the process of consumer engagement. Maybe so - but “The Experience” involves, not only your employees but your environment. So -- how do you approach and keep customers who are looking for a particular product while avoiding the price game? You make the product secondary to their overall shopping experience.

Of course you want your customers or patients to leave your shop or office with products, but you don’t want the merchandise (or the price) to be the only driving motivation that brought them to you in the first place. Why? Because many of those products are available elsewhere and online. That point bears repeating. Consumers are armed with iPhones and they'll price-shop you while you're showing them those boring, designer branded frames that they can just as easily buy elsewhere -- at your competition.

Think of those beautiful fashion eyeglasses as a souvenir of an outstanding shopping experience, an experience they want to remember and repeat. You want them to tell a friend about one of your employees because he/she was exceptional. Creating that experience isn’t difficult, but it does require training and planning. That exceptional experience begins at the front door and continues throughout your office or retail space. If it looks old, outdated or messy — that’s a negative mark on the consumer’s overall experience. For the optical retailer - focus on displays, point of purchase materials (less is more), your merchandise layout, lighting, colors, flooring — you get my drift. Visit any Warby Parker store and you’ll appreciate how they have approached optical retailing and … (don’t hate me for this) they’ve done a wonderful job at it. It’s the complete package and one of the reasons you’ll see at least 20 consumers wandering around trying on frames. It’s the total optical retail experience - the environment, the employees and finally - the product!

There’s a hugely successful orthodontist practice in my area, and just walking in is an almost zen-like experience. The happy, professional greetings come from all corners. The wall behind the front desk is beautifully branded with professionally photographed and artfully mounted pictures of happy patients and the logo is backlit, very slick and professionally designed. As I walk back through the facility, windows are everywhere, the exam rooms are open and huge with the most modern equipment available. And, as if that’s not enough, they have a Starbucks set up in their office. Yes - they have a trained Barista who serves every coffee drink imaginable with espresso shots drawn from the same Starbucks equipment used in their stores (maybe its a subtle way of promoting teeth whitening). The drinks are FREE, but with each coffee dispensed a donation is made to a worthy cause - childhood cancer. Great cause and (not the reason for doing it), that endears your practice with the local community. You begin to see what a wonderful experience it is, even when considering the potential pain that comes from poking around your mouth. It's an experience to remember, an experience to tell friends about, an experience to share on social media.

Of course - the benefits achieved from designing a beautiful retail environment can disappear quickly if those who work in that environment aren’t up to the task of generating business through happy, professional engagements of every human being that walks though those doors. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve entered an optical office only to be greeted by rude front-desk employees, or worse — by no one at all. It seems the optician is too busy updating his/her Facebook page or sees me as just another annoying customer (who is probably armed with an iPhone). "Can I help you," isn't the most endearing greeting. "Welcome to Dr. Smiths, how may I help you" is friendlier and more welcoming. Subtle difference, huh? Think that doesn’t happen at your office? Think twice.


As for the "product" part of successful retailing — I’ve spoken about this many times before but it also bears repeating. If you’re selling the same products as your competition, you’re building a barrier to the differentiating factor that sets you apart. I’m not advocating that you ignore popular brands (like Ray Ban), I’m merely stating that those should not be what your dispensary is remembered for. “Sure we carry Ray Ban but we also have more interesting sun wear that feature lenses that are selectively tuned for many different lifestyles. We’re happy to demonstrate each of them for you.”

Buy premium industry brands, the ones big boxes aren’t selling and, for gosh sakes — look into creating your own private-label brands. The opportunities for doing this have never been easier. I’m happy to help in that area as well - I design frames and work for several factories in China and Italy.


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First impressions are lasting and you only get one chance at making a good one. There’s a dilemma in that statement with respect to optical retail in 2018. Where exactly does that “first impression" occur — your store or your web site? Who cares? You need to work on both if you’re going to be successful at this game. Let’s first consider your digital door — the web site.

Full disclosure — I also design optical web sites. A simple scan of many of the independent optical retail web sites and one can easily see why we’re losing on this battle front. Your site should be visually engaging the second it loads. After all we're are in the business of vision. Here are some focal points you need to consider when reviewing your current site. Have others look at it and ask their honest opinion. Is it up-to-date? Is it beautifully designed and (critical) does it work on mobile phones and tablet devices?

Consider your home page to be the digital equivalent of your brick and mortar front door.

Use peaceful, fashionable imagery on your home page. Bloody eyeballs or images of exam chairs and refracting equipment won’t cut it anymore -- in fact it never did. Imagine a dentist’s site with images of bleeding gums and that damn scrapping tool - spit and rinse. Who wants to see those? The typical consumer doesn't give a wit about your refracting equipment but they darn sure want to know what brands you sell. Think branding (yours) and fashion first, medical second.

My surveys, which begin by showing consumers a variety of optical web sites to gauge their opinions and degree of engagement - how long did they hang around, have proven the importance of avoiding the all too common templated optical web site trap. The sites that garnered the most positive responses were those that featured fashionable imagery and were easy to navigate. Points were lost if there was too much technical text or featured drop-down menus with dozens of sub-menus leading to a maze of interconnected pages with all sorts of gibberish about every imaginable disease of the eye. It’s that simple. More images, less text, easy navigation and get rid of those bloody eyeballs. Focus on the experience the customer will receive by booking an appointment and/or by visiting your location.


The first impression a customer gets as they walk through the doors of your store or practice comes from your optical sales team and/or that front desk employee, if you have one. If they’re disengaged, that sends a message of apathy. Employees standing around talking to each other or disappearing does not make a great first impression. Be on the lookout for those kinds of negative behaviors -- you might not know it's going on.

Engage with customers as soon as they enter your store. Delivering a positive greeting and showing a genuine desire to connect lets your customers know that you are thrilled to assist them with their eye care needs. This is step one in building a positive engagement, and that’s the first step in building rapport which ultimately leads to more positive word-of-mouth promoting of your practice to others.

Need more information? Contact me and we can discuss your practice needs. Optical retail is alive and well. Bank on it.

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