Many optometrists are concerned about the future of their practices because internet vendors of prescription eyeglasses are a formidable threat. There is good reason for concern because e-commerce has completely changed buying habits for many other product categories. I've written and lectured about online optical many times, but what is the best strategy for private practices to adopt right now?
Many ODs are considering charging patients a fee for the PD measurement. Perhaps we should charge for eyeglass adjustments. Can we prescribe products that are not available on the internet? Some ODs are even considering getting out of optical dispensing altogether perhaps to concentrate on medical eye care.
What to do right now
I would not do any of the tactics listed above. Internet eyeglass vendors are a new and innovative form of competition, but it is still competition. The best strategy is the same as it is with any competitor: work harder to make your own services and products better.
Instead of worrying about your competition, worry about your own practice. Don't be distracted by online optical. Don't scheme to find a way to prevent patients from leaving your office to buy glasses elsewhere; work to make patients want to buy them from you! Become obsessed with the service and products you and your staff provide. How can you improve it?
Improve customer service, convenience, and the perception of your practice.
Improve the office facility.
Improve the instrumentation.
Improve the frame inventory.
Improve the speed of delivery of glasses.
Invest in more high tech tools to make optical dispensing a valued service (such as digital optical measuring devices).
Use iPads and video clips to educate patients.
Educate patients about the value of professional opticians (without being over the top).
Make your practice more high tech in general by using email to communicate and having a great website.
If patients want to take their spectacle Rx elsewhere, let them. Be understanding about it.
If you make your practice a wonderful place for eye care, you will become more immune to competitive forces, no matter what form they are.
I think it is smart to monitor the percentage of patients in your practice who actually buy glasses online. You and your staff can usually tell what the intention is. Most patients will just tell you. We should always track the spectacle Rx walkout rate (opposite of retention rate). Simply add an additional stat for those with an intention to buy online. We tend to react emotionally to some forms of competition, even if it is rather rare. Don't make changes in your policies for very rare events. See below for national percentages of online optical buying trends.
What not to do
I suggest that you do not:
Act defensive and annoyed if someone asks about internet eyeglasses.
Try to withhold the spectacle Rx or try to prescribe products that can't be found elsewhere (you end up looking like you are just being difficult and trying to block the patient's right to buy glasses. It is basically correct).
Charge fees for minor services (patients view this as a way to try to block them from taking their Rx. You may lose the whole family as eye care patients if you are difficult to do business with.).
Stop investing in your optical or close your optical (I would invest more money in your optical).
Host your own online optical on your website (it is really not needed yet and it sends the incorrect message that your practice approves of the online venue).
The actual facts about online sales
I believe the online optical trend will increase slowly, which is what has been happening for the past five years. Slowing down the trend is good for private practice because it gives us time to adapt and to develop other profit centers within our practices.
The Vision Council conducts the only large-scale study I know of for online optical sales each year. It is an excellent survey with responses tabulated from well over 5,000 U.S. consumers. Here are the percentages of prescription eyeglasses sold online for the past several years:
2009: 2.9% (This increase caused much concern. It was up 1% from prior year, but that was a 54% increase!)
2010: 2.8% (The percentage went down, but it was only one tenth of a percent. Too small to draw conclusions)
2011: 2.4% (What? It dropped for the second year in a row? Why didn't we hear much about this?)
2012: 2.9% (An increase, but that is not surprising. Actually got back to the 2009 level).