Article Date: 9/1/2010

The State of Online Spectacle Sales
dispensing

The State of Online Spectacle Sales

A look at how the leading websites work, their impact on your practice and how you can compete with them

Tara Rosenzweig, contributing editor

Online spectacle sales has quickly become a hot topic among independent optometrists. While many express concerns over patient satisfaction and a potential loss of practice revenue from online sales, all O.D.s should carefully weigh their options in this competitive new environment.

Here's a look at how several of the major dispensing sites operate, their impact on independent practices and the ways in which you can compete with them.


ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK GNAN

A look at the competition

An internet search using keywords such as "glasses" or "eyeglasses" will yield a number of websites, such as FramesDirect.com and ZenniOptical.com, which sell spectacles. Once on a site, the customer chooses a frame from an online selection. Although the experience doesn't compare to trying on frames from a bricks-and-mortar optical dispensary, several sites offer a "try on" option in which the consumer uploads a photo of himself and then tries on the frames virtually. After the frame selection, the customer picks his lenses and lens options (some sites highlight the best lens option based on the customer's information). The customer typically enters his pupillary distance (PD), sphere, cylinder, axis and add for each eye via drop-down menus. (Although all advise customers get PD measurements from their eye doctors, some provide instructions on how one can measure their PD with a ruler.) Some sites have optional Mono L and Mono R drop-down menus. Many, but not all, require a copy of the customer's prescription and/or doctor's name and phone number for prescription verification.

The specific features of these sites:

Pricing and promotions. Some might assume "online" always means "low price." Yet these sites provide varying selections of frames in a range of price points, from unbranded value styles to designer brands. For example, FramesDirect.com sells Vogue and Anne Klein frames starting at less than $100, to high-end Prada and Dolce & Gabbana frames at roughly $350. ZenniOptical.com offers non-branded frames priced as low as $8 up to roughly $45.

At PopularGlasses.com, customers can choose from a large variety of designer frames in categories that range from "Under $100" to "$400 and more." GlassesUSA.com sells a limited variety of designer frames and categorizes most of its frames, which it sells for "up to 70% off retail prices," by frame style (such as rimless, semi-rimless, etc.). For example, its semi-rimless styles range from $34.95 to $145, including single vision lenses.

Some of the spectacle sales sites run promotions while others take a simple "everyday low price" stance. For instance, FramesDirect.com recently ran a promotion of $20 off eyeglasses that cost more than $119, while ZenniOptical.com calls itself the "global price and volume leader." PopularGlasses.com's home page recently highlighted "Save up to 40% on all Versace frames."

Lens options. A basic singlevision lens is often included in the price for eyeglasses. Other lenses, including 1.59, 1.61, 1.67, and 1.74, range fairly widely in price. For example, GlassesUSA.com charges $130 for 1.74, while high-index 1.74 starts at $275 on FramesDirect.com. Lens extras, such as anti-scratch and anti-reflective coatings cost from $4.95 to more than $100 for premium photochromic lenses.

Guarantees. FramesDirect.com guarantees "100% accuracy on all prescriptions, or they will be remade at no charge," and Zenni Optical states, "We guarantee to make a correct pair of prescription glasses according to the prescription values as ordered by the customer." Popular- Glasses.com is less specific and doesn't mention prescription accuracy, stating that it will "guarantee that all of the items that you will find at PopularGlasses.com are authentic, brand new and free of defects." GlassesUSA.com offers a one-time exchange for eyewear that has defects in the frame or lenses.

Returns. Most of the spectacle sales sites accept returns and offer refunds. Many charge a 20% restocking fee for returns and require the customer obtain a "return merchandise authorization" before submitting a return. Also, most accept returns within 30 days of either the shipping date or the order receival date. In addition, most of these sites require the customer to pay for return shipping.

One of the newest online spectacle sales sites to enter this arena, Tryglassesforfree.com, provides the option of a free home trial program. Specifically, the consumer can choose up to four frames, and the company delivers the home trial kit (which includes the frames with plano lenses, a Tryglassesforfree.com brochure [which explains lens options and pricing], a black marker and an order form) free of charge, within three to five business days. Upon delivery of the kit, the consumer has seven days to decide whether he wants to keep one or more of the frames. The kit includes postagepaid return shipping.

Although the trial program is free, the site does require credit card information should the consumer decide to keep one or all the frames past the seven-day trial period. If, however, the consumer wants to purchase their complete eyewear from Tryglassesforfree.com, he has three options: (1) He can ship the frames back with the order form that includes his prescription (sphere, cylinder, axis, add, PD); (2) order online, and mail the trial frames back; or (3) call a customer service representative and make a purchase live and mail the frames back.

If the patient is unable to provide his PD, Tryglassesforfree.com asks the consumer to have a friend or family member use kit's marker and follow the directions included in the brochure to obtain PD. Try glassesforfree.com says it delivers complete eyewear in "about seven business days."

In terms of pricing and promotions, Tryglassesforfree.com provides frames that range from $40 to $120, including single vision lenses. Designer frames include 2000 and Beyond, Donald Trump and Little League Baseball, among others. Lens options include optical plastic (single vision–free, lined bifocal-$25, trifocal-$ 65, no-line bifocal-$69), polycarbonate (single vision–$20, lined bifocal-$30, trifocal-$70, no-line bifocal-$70) and high index (single vision–$25, lined bifocal-$35, trifocal-$70, no-line bifocal $70). Lens enhancements range from free scratch-resistant treatment to photochromic lenses up to $90 for no-line bifocal lenses.

As far as guarantees are concerned, Tryglassesforfree.com provides a 30-day no risk 100% money-back guarantee for any reason, which begins when the consumer receives his complete eyewear. Further, the site pays for the shipping to return the glasses.

In case you're wondering, all optical chain stores post eyewear galleries on their websites for customers to peruse different frame styles, but most do not currently sell prescription eyewear through their websites. As we go to press, For Eyes.com is the exception; it sells a limited selection of prescription eyeglasses on its website.

ForEyes.com's e-commerce site works similarly to those of the large aforementioned eyewear e-tailers. After customers make their frame and lens selections and provide prescription information, the customer must have their prescription verified via e-mail, fax or by having ForEyes.com call their doctor.

What's the impact?

Currently, online spectacle dispensing isn't having much of an impact on independent practice profits. The Vision Council's Internet Influence study revealed that only 3% of customers who recently purchased eyewear did so directly through a website. That said, all those interviewed for this article believe it's only a matter of time before online spectacle sales go the route of online contact lens sales.

"The first year or two [online contact lens sales] didn't have a huge impact, but now it has a pretty significant impact," says optometrist Scot Morris, of Conifer, Colo., who also writes OM's "Tech Time" column.

Optometrist Justin Bazan, of Park Slope, N.Y., adds, "Anytime people spend money elsewhere, it affects your profitability. It's important to minimize this loss."

PD or not PD?

Some O.D.s question whether they should provide the patient with his PD measurement. Optometrist Neil Gailmard, of Munster, Ind., who writes OM's "Management Tip of The Week" e-newsletter, acknowledges this is not an easy decision, but he favors giving it to the patient if requested.

"One could make the case that the PD is part of the eyeglass prescription, and I don't think anyone doubts that optometrists should release eyeglass prescriptions," he says. "If the patient perceives that a doctor is trying to block his access to his own complete and valid prescription, serious damage can be done to the practice reputation. I know some doctors don't even have the PD measurement in the patient record if glasses were not ordered at the practice, but in those cases, I would allow the patient to come in, and we would measure it at no charge. It should be noted that most autorefractors measure PD automatically, and that could be supplied."

How you can compete

Your colleagues offer the following suggestions for competing with those e-retailers who sell spectacles online.

1. Express concerns objectively. If you have concerns about a patient who shows an interest in buying spectacles from an online retailer, express those concerns objectively. For example, you might say you realize that websites are appealing, but you're concerned the patient may be disappointed in an online spectacle purchase because these sites don't offer an optical professional who can provide face-to-face guidance on lens design, the size and fit of the frame and the critical lens measurements, such as monocular pupillary distance, multifocal segment height and vertical optical center placement, says Dr. Gailmard.

"If you simply talk negatively about it [online spectacle retail], the experience of the patient in your office is minimized because they're thinking, ‘Well, they're [the doctor is] just in it for the money vs. actually trying to help me,’" adds Dr. Morris. This could result in you losing that patient for good, he says.

"I think independent practices can compete very well because we do have a brick-and-mortar office with a real inventory — not virtual — and with trained optical professionals on duty," says Dr. Gailmard. In addition, he says he thinks many people believe quality is more important than price when it comes to eyewear. "I don't think we should compete on low price because of the quality differences we offer…" he says.

2. Make a courtesy repair to eyewear purchased online. The office traffic produced by those seeking repairs can lead to sales, says Dr. Morris. "…Good will and being helpful all build business," adds Dr. Bazan.

That said, Dr. Gailmard believes that if online spectacle sales begin to eclipse independent O.D. optical dispensary sales, O.D.s will have to charge for adjustments and repairs to glasses purchased from these sites.

3. Offer a range of frames that include value price points. "We have frames starting at $29 and going up to over $5,000," says Michael P. Lange, O.D., who operates two practices with nine locations in Florida. "Eyecare centers must offer a competitive package, including frame and lens combos, to keep that portion of their practice from eroding away and [patients] shopping elsewhere."

4. Provide great customer service. "If you have an optician or frame stylist ready to go above and beyond with each customer, the patient will see the value of purchasing with you," says Dr. Lange.

Dr. Bazan adds, "We cultivate people who place customer service and experience above price. People come here knowing we are going to give them something they cannot get online. They may be able to find the product cheaper online, but not without sacrificing the experience they would have with us."

And great customer service leads to word-of-mouth referrals: "Give them [patients] experiences that they just have to share with their friends," he says. "It's those referrals that perpetuate the cycle of success and help you keep those who only care about the bottom dollar online out of your office."

5. Offer promotions. Dr. Lange says he offers a free second pair from a select group of frames that patients can use as a back-up, or a computer prescription, readers, sports glasses, sunglass, etc. to retain sales.

6. Offer online spectacle dispensing through your practice. Offering this option not only enables you to compete with e-commerce sites that sell spectacles, it can also bridge the quality gap between spectacle sales sites and your brick-and-mortar practice, as your site leverages your knowledge of your patient's unique refractive needs. There are two models for developing an online dispensing presence:

► You can hire a web design firm that specializes in the optical industry to create your own ecommerce site, in which you set up or make changes to the order form through an administrative page that contains order blanks and dropdown menus for all necessary eyewear measurements, or parameters. Or, for a fee, you can have the firm perform the administrative tasks.

► You can obtain an e-commerce service partner to which you link from your own practice website, add your logo or images to the online storefront, select the brands to sell, and the partner is responsible for product manufacturing and fulfillment.

Penn Moody, O.D., of Indianapolis, decided to link with a partner to create MoodyEyesonline.com. "The whole concept of Moody Eyes online grew out of my experience of patients wanting their prescription to buy additional eyewear online," he explains. With a "soft" website launch in April, it's too early to tell how profitable Moody Eyes Online will be, he says, but he thinks it's an opportunity to participate in a growing area. "I firmly believe this will be a profit center in the coming years for practices that do it right," he says.

Dr. Moody limits online ordering to single vision lenses only. "We strongly believe there are so many variables in progressives that the customer is better served by purchasing those from their ECP," he says.

Dr. Morris adds, that quality control problems tend to be minimized with online O.D. sites because the O.D. ensures the proper procedures are in place.

The bottom line for any practice: "…We should watch this area closely and be ready to change our practice policies if we see a significant number of patients buying glasses online," says Dr. Gailmard. OM

Tara Rosenzweig is a freelance writer and a former editor of Eyecare Business magazine (a sister publication of Optometric Management) who lives in the Philadelphia area. E-mail her at Tara.Rosenzweig@verizon.net. Or, send comments to optometricmanagement@gmail.com.


Optometric Management, Issue: September 2010