While many online-only optical retailers position themselves as competitive adversaries to traditional brick-and-mortar stores, there are a few that work in harmony with them, combining the convenience of shopping online with the services available from an eyecare professional’s practice.
For example, Essilor launched MyOnlineOptical two years ago to enable independent U.S. eyecare professionals to sell eyeglasses, contact lenses, frames and sunglasses online. Zip Eyewear also allows consumers to buy prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses online and then sends them to an ECP for dispensing. The most recent addition to this list, eStores by Eyeconic just emerged from beta testing to be introduced this month.
Since its launch two years ago in March 2010, MyOnlineOptical has grown to the point where it now services 1,100 practices, “all at different stages of maturity,” according to Matthieu Tagnon, director of services marketing for Essilor of America. MyOnlineOptical.com connects with a practice’s website, reflecting its look and feel, and each practice has the option to use the tool as they see fit. Some use it simply to attract patients. Others utilize it more extensively to augment their product selection and also incorporate it into the dispensing process, including using the service’s virtual try-on technology.
“Some are using it very proactively, reaching out to patients and promoting services. Some are cautious about it,” said Tagnon. “There’s not one right way to do this.”
Tagnon explained how the reaction to MyOnlineOptical has changed since it was introduced two years ago. “At the beginning of this venture, it was a very emotional subject, and we faced an adoption challenge where we had to explain what’s in it for the practice,” he said. “Now this has changed. Adoption is really not a challenge at all. Everybody has heard about the web as a way for patients to find eyeglasses, and everybody has to make a decision about how they will go to the web.”
However, each practice wants to customize its approach to the web, and MyOnlineOptical accommodates that. “There are a wide variety of strategies that we are seeing,” said Tagnon, “and usage depends on each practice. We’re not pushing any particular strategy. We’re here to support them with best practices and let them know what works and what doesn’t work.”
One of those best practices is for the entire office to adopt MyOnlineOptical as a tool for dispensing eyewear. “It’s extremely important for the whole practice, not just the doctor but the staff also, to embrace it and make it their own tool,” said Tagnon.
MyOnlineOptical supports the practice by offering it an additional channel through which it can dispense eyewear while at the same time enabling it to compete with the growing number of online optical retailers. Tagnon explained that MyOnlineOptical’s objective is not to capture the online sale. “It’s so the practice captures the sale regardless of the channel.” However, he added, “The real question is what do we do to support those patients who are tempted to go online? Do we let them go to existing dotcom solutions, or do we help ECPs participate in this?” Essilor’s answer to this is MyOnlineOptical.
“For a private practice, MyOnlineOptical gives you a turnkey operation,” said David H. Hettler, OD, CFO and vice president of May & Hettler, based in Alexandria, Va., with seven stores. “The program is very flexible and allows us to set our own pricing and decide what products we offer. It makes us seem up to date by having online optical sales and gives us a presence we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Following a simple system that combines internet shopping with fitting and dispensing by an ECP, Zip Eyewear gives consumers the best of both worlds. Now a year old, the Zip Eyewear model begins when a consumer visits zipeyewear.com to order glasses online, either just the frames or lenses with the frames. Participating eyecare providers are notified of the order, and consumers are given a voucher for the eyewear they select. The buyer then redeems the voucher in person at the optician’s office where the eyewear is fitted and dispensed or any necessary changes can be made.
Since Zip Eyewear launched one year ago, “We now have a network of over 500 locations,” said Michael Nason, president and co-founder. The initial plan was to go national, but Zip Eyewear is now focused on Dallas, Boston, Chicago and New York City. “Rather than target every single metropolitan area, we had to take a step back and target a few markets,” said Nason. “We want enough coverage before we market to consumers so they can order online and be within 15 to 20 minutes of a provider.” In this way, the Zip Eyewear model can build a base of providers as well as consumers at the same time.
While Nason explained that Zip Eyewear is “small and just starting out,” he did allude to the fact that he is in talks to enroll two large corporations that could add thousands of locations as providers within just a couple of months.
The model benefits not only the consumer who wants the convenience of shopping online, but it’s a winning formula for the ECP too. “We provide the e-commerce platform and are able to help the ECP capture customers who go online to shop, which is happening more often,” Nason said.
ESTORES BY EYECONIC (PROJECT OF VSP GLOBAL)
Just out of beta testing and to be introduced this month to coincide with Vision Expo East, eStores by Eyeconic was developed by VSP Global and serves as an online extension of an individual VSP practice’s brick-and-mortar dispensary. Both VSP and non-VSP members can shop online for contact lenses as well as plano and prescription eyewear.
“Consumers are voting every day with their keyboard and their mouse that they want to shop this way, and this gives our doctors a new way to satisfy the patient and a new channel for revenue,” said Steve Baker, president of Eyefinity. “It’s our core mission to provide services that engage our partner practices and help them compete in this new world.”
While the model is so new that few ECPs have actually been able to gauge its success using the internet to sell eyewear to their patients, a couple of ECPs using eStores by Eyeconic told Vision Monday that the beauty of the system is how easy it is to set up and maintain, and the fact that it can expand the number of frames they can offer beyond those that can fit on their boards. More ECPs will have the opportunity to test that feature out as the system deploys later this month.
VSP’s eStores by Eyeconic will be available to all eWebExtra customers starting March 21. At first, available frames will be limited to Altair and Marchon, but additional brands may be added in the future.