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THE WILD, WILD WEB

A stellar roster of 3 optical pros offer up their 9 specific, strategic tips for competing with online Rx eyewear sales in a Warby Parker world

What's keeping eyecare professionals up at night? ECPs tell us one surefire sleep reducer is the burgeoning retail market for online prescription eyewear sales, according to overwhelming feedback from a recent reader survey conducted by Eyecare Business.

The fact that online sales is ECPs’ biggest business concern comes as little surprise. In the U.S., eyewear and contacts sales online (sunwear, Rx eyewear, contacts, and solutions) are expected to generate $2.5 billion this year, up from $2.1 billion in 2016, according to Euromonitor International. In 2016, 3.1 million pairs of Rx eyeglasses were sold directly online—that’s 2.3% of all Rx eyewear dollar revenue—according to The Vision Council. The 2016 number for plano sunglasses is 7 million (11.8%) and 17.7 million transactions for contacts (15.6%).

The growth of online eyewear mirrors the overarching rise of e-commerce that's redefining the retail sector—U.S. retail e-commerce sales for the second quarter of 2017 were $111.5 billion (an increase of 16.3% from 2016; retail sales increased 4.1% in the same period).

As a result, brick-and-mortar merchants are rethinking their business models in the age of Amazon (which rings up a whopping 43% of overall U.S. online retail sales).

When it comes to eyeglass sales, Warby Parker has made a name in the optical market with its low-price, vertical business model. And, just like Amazon, Warby Parker is now spreading its brick-and-mortar wings—with 25 stores opening just this year, for a grand total of 70 nationwide.

But, it’s not just Warby Parker that’s snatching up Rx eyewear market share. In no particular order, online players Warby Parker, Zenni Optical, Coastal, EyeBuyDirect, and Glasses.com are the top five sites for prescription sales today, according to The Vision Council.

While eyecare professionals say that e-commerce has changed the business of selling eyewear, optical experts agree that independent ECPs still have the edge.

Here, three optical pros share nine insider tips on leveraging that edge to survive—and thrive—in a Warby Parker world.

INSIDER TIP #1
Get Ultra Personal

ECPs should personalize the patient experience by applying their deep optical knowledge to patients’ singular needs. “The wow factor is an ECP’s ability to present the right product to a particular patient to solve their visual acuity needs,” says John Bonizio, owner and general manager of Metro Optics Eyewear in the Bronx, New York. “That’s not something you can do online.”

“You have to ascertain their use of eyewear, and then put to use your professional knowledge for that particular patient,” he says. The idea is to “design a solution to their visual problems and challenges.”

That calls for getting detailed information with questions like, “What do you do for a living? How much small print do you read? Where is the computer on your desk?” he says.

John Bonizio, Metro Optics Eyewear

INSIDER TIP #2
Heighten Convenience

As ECPs are now competing with the convenience inherent to online shopping, “they must have [their own] convenience strategy, such as home try-ons, home deliveries, or extended hours,” says David Friedfeld, president of ClearVision Optical, who gives a popular talk at trade shows entitled “Everyone Loves Warby Parker (And Why ECPs Should Too).”

David Friedfeld, ClearVision Optical

INSIDER TIP #3
Understand the Power of Mobile

“Customers love to window shop in the 21st Century,” says Coyote DeGroot, owner of Labrabbit Optics in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. “That window just happens to be a flat panel of glass on the front of their smart phone.”

So, for ECPs, it’s imperative to make that mobile browsing experience “as easy and straightforward as possible,” he says.

Coyote DeGroot, Labrabbit Optics

INSIDER TIP #4
Be All Things to All People

When it comes to optical shops, “You need to be all things to all people,” says Bonizio.

That philosophy informs Metro Optics’ assortment, where one can buy two pairs of glasses for $99, as well as a Chanel and a Cartier frame. “Patients need a diversity of choices,” he says. “Less is not more, especially in the Internet age.”

INSIDER TIP #5
Develop A Credible Pricing Strategy

Too many ECPs have a “deer in the headlights” reaction when a customer says, “I can find this same frame online for less money,” Friedfeld says. “What online does is spread information easily, so that pricing is now available to everyone.” Consider devoting an area of your business to price-sensitive purchasers, “so that if price is the issue, the ECP can address it,” he says.

INSIDER TIP #6
Eliminate Barriers

Labrabbit Optics makes sure nothing comes between the customer and the products, including elaborate displays and point-of-purchase materials that can “confuse the eye and can be intimidating.” In the store, “nothing is locked up,” so that shoppers can touch and try on product without the mediation of a salesperson,” DeGroot says. “Keep it simple and intuitive.”

Case in point, Labrabbit Optics is free of signs, banners, and other P.O.P. materials.

INSIDER TIP #7
Offer What E-Commerce Can’t

Consider offering high-tech eyewear options. For example, ClearVision Optical is exploring 3D-printed eyewear for its customers as well as niche products “that are more difficult to duplicate as a strictly online experience,” such as lens technology or customizable eyewear, says Friedfeld.

INSIDER TIP #8
Tailor Your Social Mix

Make sure your social media content plays to the strengths of each digital platform. For example, “Instagram and Facebook are great places to make announcements and post photos, but they’re not a great way to post static information,” says DeGroot.

By contrast, your website should be a primer on your business and a “one-stop-solution” for all your customers’ questions on your products, frames, and services. “Think of a website as a movie trailer for your business,” he says.

INSIDER TIP #9
Be Your Own Best Word of Mouth

DeGroot keeps a running conversation going on his business in the digital and physical worlds, which are increasingly converging. “Never be afraid to talk shop,” he says. “Be a part of the community. Business activities should never be confined to the four walls of your shop.”

GOING HEAD-TO-HEAD WITH A WARBY PARKER STORE

Warby Parker opened a store a block away from the Lexington Avenue location of OPTYX, which has 10 optical shops in New York. Here, store manager Cara Schmidt and OPTYX operations director Jenni Makher dish on what it takes to thrive when WP is just a stone’s throw away.

EB: How has Warby Parker changed the optical market overall in your view?

CARA SCHMIDT: I feel like now, many people don't expect glasses and lenses to be expensive. People see a lot of Warby Parker—they made their presence known with great marketing, so many young adults tend to believe that's the norm.

They get what they need for $99, $199, and don't see the value in purchasing glasses with better quality. They can see, so what's the point?

EB: How has its nearby store impacted your Lexington Avenue location?

CS: While we are more of a luxury practice and some patients would never step foot in a Warby Parker, it does take a toll on us for purchases like second pairs—if they need reading glasses, mainly wear contacts and need that pair for just at night, or just would like a pair to toss around.

We spend a lot of time educating our patients about the differences between a $99 and a $400 pair of glasses.

EB: What opportunities has the store brought about for your business?

CS: I've had people come in not realizing that we're not Warby Parker, and buy glasses from us.

In other words, wearing cool glasses is kind of a trend again, and some of that is the due to the marketing that Warby does. They make it accessible to people who really didn't know otherwise.

EB: How have you capitalized on them?

CS: By being able to bring in cooler, trendier eyewear!

EB: What does your shop offer patients that the WP store cannot provide?

JENNI MAKHER: Our opticians here at OPTYX come with years of experience in the field catering to different clientele and providing a sort of concierge service.

We offer only the highest-quality lenses that are all digitally designed and crafted for every individual wearer.

Warby Parker does not have the resources to provide a custom fit the way private optical professionals do with a hands-on approach.

A number of measurements are required in order to get the perfect fit. To give you an analogy, it’s like being fitted with a tailored suit or getting custom shoes made for you.

Imagine yourself buying a pair of Warby Parker glasses and bringing them to us to get your lenses fitted and adjusted consistently because the quality of the hinges or plastic is not up to the quality we handle here at OPTYX.

We offer better materials and a custom fit—which costs more money, but result in fewer problems.

The crisp interior of an OPTYX location

The modern and appealing OPTYX storefront in New York City