Predicting the future of an industry is never easy; no one has a crystal ball. But my answer to the question in the title is yes. Warby Parker and other innovative companies in optical retailing are already changing how many independent optometrists do business and the effect will continue to grow.
I like to take a non-emotional approach to disruptive innovations in our field; things are never as bad, or as good, as they first seem. I believe independent optometry will continue to thrive and prosper even if we have to change how we do business. But we will have to work at it; we need to be aware of trends and we must adapt to those that have staying power.
A look at Warby Parker
Entrepreneurs are hungry for industries that are ripe for overhaul. Huge fortunes have been made by using technology and other innovations that can reform a business category in favor of the consumer. Optical dispensing is a perfect target and while many optical companies are working to disrupt the old methods, Warby Parker is leading the way in the U.S. Our first reaction may be a bit of jealousy mixed with sour grapes… but I think we should acknowledge that WP is doing a great job in the area of optical retailing. They are reforming our field in a way that the public clearly loves. Here are a few brief highlights of the company:
The first business model by Warby Parker was one of e-commerce only, which proved to be a bit too early for the public and it was not that well-received. But they added brick and mortar stores along with their growing online business and that is proving to be a winning combination. The company is only five years old.
The physical locations are in trendy neighborhoods in major cities. They have 14 locations throughout the US with big plans to roll out many more.
The look and feel of Warby Parker stores is completely different from traditional optometric offices and even from most optical retailers. The stores just look cool. Some have the feel of a classic library or bookstore. They often have an industrial-chic look. They are adorned with art. They are fun.
Warby Parker is quickly building brand awareness and loyalty. One might compare WP to the cult-like following of Apple stores. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it conveys the right concept.
WP has greatly simplified the complex world of optical products and the public seems to love that.
Prices of frames and lenses are much less than those found in independent optometry. We can argue that we are not comparing similar products, but I’m not sure if that really matters to the public. WP is vertically integrated and they only sell their own frames and lenses, no outside brands.
Warby Parker has excelled in the concept of charitable marketing by partnering with a non-profit organization and bringing eye care to third-world countries. WP customers feel good about helping others with their purchases.
Warby Parker is led by a talented executive team and they have received impressive funding from private equity firms. The most recent round of investment capital brings their total to $215 million and the company is currently valued at $1.2 billion according to the Wall Street Journal.
How can an independent OD compete?
As impressive as that list of competitive advantages is, there are many things that optometrists in private practice do better or could do better than Warby Parker. I’ll write more about how to compete in future articles, but begin by making your own list of the strengths of your practice. Make another list of items you could do as well or better if you changed some policies or invested more money.
As you consider your own competitive advantages, think about how you can promote them to your patient base and to your local community? They don’t do much good if no one is aware of them.
In many cases, the difficult part of planning your strategy is deciding when to make changes. We could all sell lenses and frames that have a lower wholesale cost, which would let us lower our prices and make the same margins, but that may not be a smart move if your practice is already successful with premium products and higher price points. At least not yet. Take time to think about the changes you can make easily and safely and plan for bigger change when it becomes necessary.
Should we host our own online optical store within our practice websites so our patients can buy from us, or should we not endorse the online sales channel yet and tell patients they are better off ordering with the help of an optical professional? Perhaps there is a middle ground for now where we sell plano sunglasses and readers online and our websites provide a virtual frame try-on with an uploaded patient photo, but the actual sale of Rx glasses still happens in our offices. I think the answer to these questions depends on the buying trends of your local market. We will very likely make these changes and the question again becomes: when?
Should we copy Warby Parker?
Maybe in some ways. We may do well to emulate some of the WP concepts that are positive and fully embraced by the public. I can certainly learn from them. Many of their ideas are not original anyway and they are certainly not hard to duplicate. That may actually be a weakness in the Warby Parker business model; any other optical company or practice can do much of what they do. But they are doing it first and doing it on a national scale and that affords them a huge advantage.