Optometric Management Tip # 475   -   Wednesday, March 30, 2011
The Future of Optical

I received this email from a reader: "I would like to see you address the future of optical. In particular, the growing trend of purchasing eyewear online and the stance we, as an optometric community, should take in order to combat this growing market. The time is now. How can we remain competitive in this type of environment? Does the average Joe still value quality and service or is price king?"

This is a topic that is on the mind of many ECPs as we evaluate the future impact of e-commerce on optical dispensing. I certainly have been pondering it for some time and I must say that I am still quite optimistic about optical dispensing remaining a strong profit center for private practice. Additionally, I believe ECPs will adapt to the changing market by developing new profit centers to replace the possible erosion of profit in other areas.

The short answer
To answer the question posed by the reader, my response is that the optical market is segmented; some people place a very high value on price while others place a higher value on quality. The good news is that I see the segment that values high quality as quite large and those who are leaning toward price are often amenable to being shown why quality is more important. I believe independent brick and mortar offices can remain quite competitive in this changing market by staying true to our vision of providing excellent products and customer service.

The contact lens precedent
While different in many ways, we have already seen the impact of e-commerce on a product that has high demand in our practices: contact lenses. We can learn some valuable lessons from this experience and what I see is mostly positive. According to Vision Council research, about 14% of Americans currently buy their contact lenses online. 14%. Contact lenses have been sold online for well over a decade and they are far easier to buy online than glasses because the fitting information is included in the prescription and the patient has already worn the exact lens parameters. Eyeglasses are far more complex to select and order and the fit of the frame and design of the lens is not specified in the prescription. If 86% of our patients are choosing to not buy contacts online, I think we will see a greater percentage of eyeglass wearers buy local.

Most people prefer bricks and mortar
Across all industries, total retail e-commerce purchases amount to 6%. Again, I would expect eyeglasses to be less attractive online because of the following factors:

We have them first
A strong factor that will always bode well for the in-office optical department is the fact that most eyeglass buyers get eye exams and, even with the pace of change on the internet, I don't see that happening online for a long time. The confidence and trust that eye doctors garner with their patients is a huge advantage when it comes to selling eyewear. We have much to learn when it comes to merchandising and marketing, but we can learn and we will get better.

Other profit centers
In spite of my somewhat rosy outlook about the future of optical in private practice, I do not have my head in the sand. I am well aware that e-commerce has been a game changer in many industries and it will have an impact on optical. Over time, we may see the profitability in optical erode somewhat, but we will also find new profit centers based on new products and services.

While it's impossible to predict the future twists and turns of the market, we may see the value of eye exams increase as profit in the materials is reduced. There will be an increased need for medical eye care and new technology will help us do that well. Advancements in eye care and optical products continue to occur at a faster rate. I just saw electronic lenses at Vision Expo where the wearer can touch his temple and change the add power. In video and film, 3D is all the rage, but it is alerting many people to undetected vision problems. Contact lenses are becoming so comfortable that people who dropped out in the past can now wear them all day. We'll be fine.

Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management