Corporate Optometry Today! sat down with industry legend and global leader Jeff Cole to talk optometry and a whole lot more. You can read his COT! interview here. The conversation was so good we’re running here what couldn’t fit there.
ONLINE > IN-STORE
EB: If you were running an optical chain today, what would you do to coax that category of customer away from the Internet?
JEFF COLE: I’ve always been a business maverick. I would do a couple of things. I would buy a couple of online companies, because I’ve learned that it’s pretty hard to gauge the kind of people you need in a large corporation to do these sorts of things.
I would buy one online prescription eyewear company and one online sunglass company and try to understand what they were doing. Once I did, I would try to incorporate their products into my stores so that the online communities they had already reached could then find their product in my stores.
It’s backwards from what everybody is doing. Many of the online companies have realized they need product distribution, and they also realize that on the prescription end, it is extremely hard to make money online, given issues like returns, remakes, and free shipping. That’s part of the reason some of these companies have started opening stores.
I would try to retain key employees, maybe let them continue to own a small percentage of the business, learn from them, and then I would tell the online community that you can find such and such in the stores.
Then. once I had totally absorbed their expertise, I would, if necessary, develop my own online brands.
THE BIG THING
EB: What’s the current biggest thing?
JC: Consolidation. I see it as the current biggest change. With everybody acquiring everyone else, roll ups in optometry, ophthalmology, optometric services… It’s self-perpetuating because the bigger they get, the bigger everybody else has to get to compete on the retail, product, and managed care sides. Everybody is getting into everybody else’s business. The problem is that you cannot snap your fingers and make integration work.
EB: What’s next?
JC: There are a lot of things you have you think about.
Everybody is talking about telemedicine. You can have machines in stores, but to make it work, you have to convince the consumer that it’s an acceptable alternative to being seen live by the doctor. While I think it’s likely to be a big thing in the future, it’s further away than most people think.
Social media and e-commerce influences are huge, but for the most part, big companies have not been able to make it work.
The real know-how still seems to be out there in the entrepreneurial marketplace. At least in the big chains, I have yet to see what I would call a solid omni-channel approach in the area of prescription eyewear.
EB: How will brands, and their importance, evolve?
JC: Another trend is seen in what’s going on with brands. There are so many that people are somewhat less interested in brands that don’t have a real DNA. Today, every singer, every lipstick, every clothing company has an eyewear brand.
I think that’s starting to bore the consumer and they’re becoming more interested in real brands that have been around for a long time, some of which people are now trying to resurrect.
I think that DNA may play a more interesting role in the future. Instead of a proliferation of brands, a lot of secondary and tertiary brands that really don’t stand for anything will disappear.
CHAINS + BRANDING
EB: How will this affect the traditional chain business format?
JC: It’s all evolutionary. Many of the chains, other than those owned by Luxottica, have moved heavily into private label and house brands. What might happen is that chains could come to the conclusion that they have too many brands.
They should, anyway, consider putting in some of the historic, what I call “legitimate” brands and not rely so much on either private label or the big brands.
I think they’ll also bring into their stores some of the hipper, more colorful brands that are currently mostly online and appeal to Millennials so that when customers walk in, they have a serious choice of new and ever-changing merchandise.
EB: You have always been involved with charitable giving in optical. Do you see corporate giving as changing?
JC: It’s a very charitable industry with people supporting different charities. However, people who live in some areas and are below certain incomes can’t afford to provide their kids with proper eyecare. That affects the child’s ability to learn. So, while everybody is giving to international charities, most companies aren’t focused on the eyesight of inner-city kids here at home.
The Cole Eye Institute, for example, has a mobile truck that goes into inner cities. More companies should focus on needs that are close to home.
—STEPHANIE K. DE LONG