BRICK&CLICK

By
 
Download a PDF of the cover story:
Brick&Click The Online Eyewear Debate
VM STAFF REPORT

The issue of online eyeglass and contact lens sales is emerging as both one of the sharpest challenges and one of the newest business opportunities for traditional eyewear retailers and dispensers.

And in 2011, it is perhaps one of the most pointed topics being considered by the industry as people in all spheres of the business start to grapple with the implications of the new online, digital world for the conventional realm of optical retailing.

In this special Cover Topic report, Vision Monday has learned that views are not at all consistent on this complex issue. Far from it. In our interviews with retailers, doctors, dispensers and executives from both the “brick” and “click” arenas, we’ve uncovered a mix of attitudes, ranging from outrage to excitement, from frustration to the embrace of online’s new potential.

We’ve talked to several major online players (see story, page 68) who firmly believe that their new business models and organizational structures are enabling them to attract customers in new ways, even as they contend with ways to provide fitting, Rx options and service.

We surveyed VM readers and uncovered a range of attitudes about how they perceive the advent of Internet sales, how they contend with customers and patients who are asking questions and looking for answers. (See story, page 64)

And we’ve tapped the current views of independents, regional groups and larger optical retailers to find out what they’re doing now to participate, not participate or evaluate their roles in the new world of Brick & Click.

Many of the national optical chains are just dipping their toes in the water in terms of online sales. While most offer replacement contact lens sales via their websites, and many provide online scheduling for eye exams, actual sales of eyeglasses using the Internet are rare among the country’s largest chains.

For example, HVHC’s optical chains—including EyeMasters ( www.eyemasters.com), Visionworks ( www.visionworkseyewear.com) and Empire Vision Centers ( www.empirevision.com) —have virtually identical websites that offer CL sales through HVHC’s trademarked Lens123 site ( www.lens123.com). The chains’ webites also offer consumers “Web special” coupons available by Zip Code, as well as an opportunity to sign up for “exclusive email offers.”

The sites do not offer frame or lens sales online, however, although they do include a “frame styling guide” giving consumers tips on selecting eyewear based on their facial shapes.

National Vision’s America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses chain ( www.twopair.com) also provides online contact lens sales via a link to its own dedicated site, www.bestcontacts.com. In addition to a store locator and exam scheduling toot, the main site lets consumers sign up online for the chain’s Eyeglass Club, offering free eye exams and a 10 percent discount on CLs and eyeglasses for a $99 three-year membership.

Luxottica Retail’s Pearle Vision chain ( www.pearlevision.com), like its sister retail brand Lens Crafters ( www.lenscrafters.com), has expanded its website’s functionality to include digital help for consumers in choosing their eyewear. Both sites also offer online contact lens sales through an affiliation with Vision Direct, a wholly owned subsidiary of Drugstore.com, as well as exam scheduling and store locators via the Internet.

Both the LensCrafters and Pearle Vision sites let consumers upload a photo of themselves to virtually “try on” selected frame styles on their photos. In addition, LensCrafters provides a Face Shape Selector so consumers can see which frames are likely to look best on them, as well as a Frame Personality quiz offering additional styling tips. Consumers can also search the chain’s frame inventory by trend categories, such as Geek Chic or Retro Cool.

Pearle goes one step further by offering its Try-On Tool, which allows site visitors to try frames after taking pictures of their faces with a Webcam. Is the next step selling eyeglasses online? Wendy Hauteman, associate vice president, marketing, for Pearle Vision, does not rule that out. “We are 100 percent aware that [selling frames online] is an opportunity, and we have a team looking at it now,” she told VM in an exclusive interview.

However, Hauteman added, “Pearle Vision doesn’t have to be the first chain to sell eyewear online, but if we do it, we want to do it right. We are currently evaluating the tools out there and how we could do online sales better.”

According to the Pearle executive, Internet eyewear consumers fall into two categories: those who want to shop online exclusively, and those who use retailers’ websites for “pre-shopping.” She noted, “We already have our catalog online as well as our Try-On Tool. Since we launched the Try-On Tool last September, our Web traffic and the time people spend on our site have increased dramatically. So we see the Web as a complement to our brick-and-mortar stores, not as competition.”

Added Hauteman, “It would be naïve to believe consumers don’t want to buy eyewear online. We see lots of potential there, but there will always be a need for traditional stores as well—some people want face-to-face interaction with a dispenser, while others may have a complicated prescription better dealt with in person. And at some point, everyone needs an eye exam.”

As for dealing in-store with consumers who may already have bought their eyeglasses online somewhere else, then bring them into a Pearle store for adjustments, Hauteman said that has so far not been a problem. “Our overall goal is to make our customers happy, so we’d do an adjustment or take a measurement for them if requested,” she told VM. “After all, those consumers are going to need another eye exam some day, and we’d hope they’d remember how well we took care of them.”

 
 Pearle Vision has expanded its website’s functionality to include digital help for consumers choosing eyewear.
Not everyone is viewing online sales favorably, however. For Chet B. Steinmetz, OD, PC, owner of single-location practice Visual Effects Optical in Chicago, selling eyewear online is not an option. He remembered a piece of advice from early in his career when voicing his concern with online optical retailing. “You can spend a half hour finding the perfect prescription and another hour finding the perfect frame for someone. And that person will be ecstatic about the purchase. But they will come screaming back to you in a minute about how much they hate you and their new glasses because they hurt behind their ears or on top of their nose.”

Steinmetz’s focus is on perfect fit. “I don’t even have photos of frames on my website,” he said, explaining, “I don’t want someone falling in love with a frame and expect it to look good on their face just because they like what it looks like in a picture. My clients rely on me to make them look great because they don’t know how to pick a great frame for their face. I want to see the face that’s looking for the frame.”

For the time being, Visual Effects has had few requests for PDs, something Steinmetz hopes will take “a long time” to catch on. “I pride myself on my ability to work one-on-one with clients, to find that perfect frame for a face. That not only means the frame will look great, but it also means the frame will be a great fit adjustment-wise. I don’t want anyone coming back telling me the frame hurts.” He insisted that though selling eyewear online is gaining momentum, he hopes his practice’s customer service and attention to client comfort will prevail.

Similarly, Alan Glazier, OD, owner and founder of Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care in Rockville, Md., believes online eyewear purchasing is a passing fad. “There’s a lot of hype about this whole online eyeglass sale business. I was around when the first wave of this came around in the late 1990s,” he said. And while Glazier admits today’s more sophisticated PD measurements simplify the purchase of eyeglasses online, he added, “I don’t see it amounting to as big a problem as people think.”

Glazier likens the current wave of online optical retailing to that of contact lenses in the past 10 years. He said that to date, roughly 10 percent of contact prescriptions walk from his store, something he’s aware might happen with eyeglasses, though on a smaller scale. To combat the competition, Glazier has staff focus on their own customer service. “Adjustments are always a value to patients who come into our practice. I encourage our opticians to introduce our services. Anytime we get someone into our location, it’s a window of opportunity to form a relationship and get that person to come back,” he said.

 
 At For Eyes Optical, the website is viewed as an extension of the company’s brand and image.
To date, Glazier’s practice has abstained from retailing via the web due to the wide net the Internet casts on consumer goods. “How do you get patients to go to your online optical without hurting your traditional brick-and-mortar optical? At this point, I don’t see it being something I’m going to do because I don’t see how people will get to my particular optical store without looking at a lot of different places and being diverted somewhere else,” he said.

Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care currently charges $35 to patients seeking PD measurements. “It can be met with resistance but I’m also considering having people see the doctor for PDs. By having them wait and come to the back, they’ll perceive value in that measurement. I wouldn’t want someone to assume that it’s a profit center but it does take our time, effort and expertise—one that they’re going to take elsewhere. Perhaps in taking that time with them, patients will have a have a chance to learn about us and see the value in getting their frames from us too.”

Nonetheless, the perspective that the Internet is an extension or connection of an optical retailer’s brand and service identity is gaining ground with other “traditional” opticians and retailers.

Brad Childs, ABOC, NCLC, and VP of Pittsburgh-based Eyetique, which currently has 10 retail locations, could not be more excited about his company’s online retailing prospects. Though Eyetique’s website does not currently have a retail component, Childs said that one is in the works, with brainstorming session well underway. “It might not be under the name Eyetique, it might be a subsidiary. But it would be anything that you can find in the frames book and lenses from single-vision to digital three point. You might be able to change shapes and custom-build tinting. We want it to be as involved as possible but also as simple as possible so we don’t confuse the client. That’s the tricky part,” he said, adding, “Theoretically, it’ll have to be priced differently because we want to reach a global market—we don’t want to cannibalize the market that we’ve built in Pittsburgh.”

 
 As a trial-run, Eyetique partnered with rapper Wiz Khalifa on a special-edition sunglass only available for purchase online.
As a trial-run, Eyetique partnered with rapper Wiz Khalifa on a special-edition sunglass. According to Childs, Wiz Khalifa’s “The Elevators” by Norman Childs (Eyetique’s house label) come in black or tortoise shell, retail for $225 and have already sold 300 of the 500 frames to 16 different countries including Japan, Canada and Australia. The frame is only available for purchase online through a special page found via the Eyetique website. Customers only have the option to buy using Paypal, something Childs chose for ease. “Sure you pay a premium but everyone is protected,” he said.

But while he has his eye on the Internet, Childs is careful not to let Eyetique get lost in the flow of the web. His practices do not give out PDs, but will price match any online provider to save a sale. “We do what we have to do to keep our people in our doors and keep them happy. That’s what separates us from every one of our competitors,” he said. As another means of staying ahead, Childs said Eyetique has its own brand of progressive lens, ETQ, and is developing a private-label contact lens.

“In today’s world we as retailers have to protect ourselves from the Internet and the big box locations. We have to do something new every day because what worked today is not going to work tomorrow. We have to keep our business growing,” he said, adding “Whatever we’re doing, it’s working.”

At For Eyes Optical, the 140-location optical retailer, Adam Wolman, COO, reported that the company’s website and e-commerce is viewed as an extension of the company’s brand and image with its loyal customers—and new customers that it is attracting via the Internet with its site and social media presence. The company started selling eyeglasses online about a year ago and continues to evaluate and mine knowledge from the experience. “We used to look at our website as an element of our marketing budget. But over the past year or so, we’ve changed our thinking,” said Wolman. “Now, we’re saying, ‘Let’s develop this as a value-added, and a revenue stream, built on the same philosophies of how you build a store, from a merchandising perspective, a marketing and a service perspective.”

Wolman continued, “Eyewear sales have increased via online, this is an industry fact. There’s not a radical shift toward it, but some people in our category have had what we see as a ‘1.0’ foothold in this environment, they’ve taken the tack of online being a ‘catalog’ type of business, less like a store. But we see that customers are now starting to identify other ways to interact with the buying experience online and, with For Eyes’ many years of history in this category, we want to be there for this next phase. There’s starting to be a convergence of technology or ‘retail-ability’ here. I can actually do something I do at my store just as well online now, if I have a brick-and-mortar [location], providing service, information, authority. It’s understanding what’s happening at the store level and taking it to a different channel,” Wolman said.