Giving Independents a Tool To Compete in the Online World

NEW YORK—In March 2010, when Essilor of America launched MyOnlineOptical, many eyecare professionals—even those with websites—were unconvinced about the value of doing business online. However, as online competition continues to accelerate, a growing number of those ECPs are implementing “MO2,” as Essilor execs refer to the web-based, all-inclusive service that allows patients to order eyeglasses, contact lenses, frames and sunglasses from independent U.S. eyecare professionals.

“A year ago, we had customers saying to us, ‘I’m not worried, online is not impacting me at all,” recalled Matthieu Tagnon, director of Internet marketing at Essilor. “Now they’re saying, ‘I’m losing sales to the web and need to do something about it.’”

Tagnon said nearly 70 practices told Essilor they lost as much as three quarters of a million dollars to competitive online vendors in 2010. “Now they’re less negative, less defensive. They’re asking us, ‘How can I participate,’ ‘How can you help me be present in the online field?’ We see an evolution.”

About 700 practices have signed on with MyOnlineOptical, which links into a practice’s website, adopting its look and feel, according to Tagnon. Patients who visit the practice’s site click through to a dedicated web address and can place orders through a toll-free number serviced by trained opticians

Three distinct types of customers use MyOnlineOptical, Tagnon observed. Some use their website to attract patients by telling their practice story, though not necessarily to drive electronic orders. MyOnlineOptical serves as a window to the products they offer. “These customers are reaching out to new patients, often younger patients,” said Tagnon. “We’re hearing some great success stories from them, and some say they have even increased their in-store traffic as a result of the service.”

Other ECPs are using MyOnlineOptical to capture sales from patients who get their eyes examined at the practice but were not satisfied with the product selection.

Patients of Dr. Kim Castleberry, OD at Plano Eye Associates use this 55-inch, in-store monitor to view products at 
“We know there’s a gap between the number of patients who come in for eye exams but then buy their eyeglasses elsewhere,” said Tagnon. “With MyOnlineOptical, the ECP can tell these patients that even though they may not have seen the frames they want in the store, they’ll find a broader selection on my website.”

Another group of customers are incorporating MyOnlineOptical into the dispensing process, particularly the service’s virtual try-on technology.

“We are piloting ways of displaying the on-line store in the practice to virtually increase the frame displays,” explained Tagnon. “You’ve got to get the staff to embrace the service and understand why the service is helping build business. The key for us is that not only is the independent eyecare community involved, but they’re also engaged.”

One practice that encourages patients to use MyOnlineOptical in-store is Plano Eye Associates in Plano, Texas, which has been using the service since September, 2010. Patients can view a broad selection of lenses, frames and sunwear on a 55-inch monitor equipped with a mouse and keyboard.

“If we don’t have something in stock we can bring it up on the screen,” said Dr. Kim Castleberry, OD. “A few orders have actually been taken in the store. If the patient prefers to place their order from home, their order information and everything they need is already in the “cloud.”

Tech Optical Express in Atlanta, Georgia also promotes its e-commerce capabilities to patients who visit its brick-and-mortar store located on the Georgia Tech campus.

“We have five Internet stations in the store, and each has a Webcam so patients use the virtual try-on feature,” said Dr. Michael Acker, OD who operates the practice together with his wife, Dr. Valerie Acker, OD. “I tell patients about the virtual try-on feature. I walk them through it, then give them a card so they can visit the site at home.” Dr. Acker then sends these patients an email that reminds them to visit Tech Optical Express’s online optical.

Dr. Michael Acker, OD said patients who visit his website, Tech Optical, can click on a link to access his online optical store, which is designed and managed by MyOnlineOptical.
Integrating MyOnlineOptical into his practice has required some adjustment, Dr. Acker said. “We’ve had it for about six months, and initially we weren’t really using it that much because we weren’t used to it,” he recalled. “But as we got more comfortable, we began to incorporate it into our daily routine. Now we may do $2,000 to $3,000 a month in online sales.”

Although Tech Optical Express doesn’t carry many expensive frames in its dispensary, patients can find higher priced, fashion brands such as Prada and Gucci through its virtual dispensary. “We’re able to capture patients who probably would have walked out without purchasing a frame and would have bought their frames somewhere else,” Dr. Acker said. These patients then come to his dispensary for their lenses.

Dr. Castleberry has had a similar experience at Plano Eye Associates. “We just want to retain some of the patients that go shopping elsewhere,” he explained. “This gives us another way to compete. We can offer things online for about 20 percent to 25 percent less because there’s no overhead,”
he noted.

Dr. Castleberry estimated that Plano Eye Associates makes a net profit of about $1,000 a month in online sales, most of which is from contact lenses. “That’s not a lot, but if you look at the potential growth, it could be very significant,” he said.

“I have no idea where online optical is going to go, but it seems to have a place in the future of eyewear,” said Dr. Castleberry, though he admits that his crystal ball may not be accurate. “A few decades ago, I didn’t think big box retailing was the future, so I don’t have confidence in my ability to predict the future. However, MyOnlineOptical is my insurance policy for the future. Now I’ve got a dog in the fight.”—Andrew Karp.