Click to download a PDF of Pursuing a Path to E-Commerce.

Call it a paradigm shift. A sea change. A transformation. A mindset adjustment. All describe the still-changing and already-changed attitudes among optical retailers and independent eyecare professionals toward establishing an enhanced online presence that supports e-commerce and connectivity with customers and patients.

The pandemic environment of the past 18-24 months has accelerated new patterns of behavior and expectations among consumers of all ages. Shopping and purchasing habits have changed to the point that omnichannel or brick-and-click are coexisting more than ever before.

Further, eMarketer recently reported that while online commerce will continue to grow at aggressive double-digit rates, brick-and-mortar stores will still be very relevant for shopping with 84 percent of sales coming from physical stores. Those stores will become more experiential and incorporate more technology to support a new kind of shopping journey, experts say.

In 2020, more than 44 percent of adults who purchased eyeglasses used the internet to assist in their acquisition of prescription eyeglasses, up from 22 percent in 2017. With 14.1 percent of 2020 eyeglass buyers using the internet to directly purchase eyeglasses throughout the year, about 30 percent of 2020 eyeglass buyers used the internet to compare prices, find the type or style of eyeglasses they wanted to buy or find the ECP or retailer they bought from in-person later. These are among the conclusions of the 2020 Internet Influence Report from The Vision Council.

Observed Andy Chance-Hill, Ocuco’s omnichannel director, “We’ve watched in other fields and business sectors for years as more aspects of those businesses have shown up online. We know and understand that among ECPs and optical retailers how they have grappled with the internet and what it means for the complexity of a category like eyecare and eyewear. But around the world as the pandemic lockdowns happened, it was interesting to watch the way each ECP dealt with the closure.

“Patients wanted to connect to doctors, they wanted to connect to the stores, the stores wanted to be able to present its services and product choices to consumers. We’d always seen that digital marketing and social media were gaining traction but now the website and all of these related tools needed, truly, to be managed. We’ve seen a new interest, most certainly, in omnichannel solutions,” Chance-Hill said.

Added Ocuco’s Dermot Walsh, chief revenue officer, “We operate three lines of business, our retail EHR, our lab systems and omnichannel. And omnichannel is now the fastest-growing business line from a revenue and staff point of view as well. Actually, COVID-19 changed online sales, so that a goal was not just ‘drive to store’ but ‘drive to site.’

“The timeline to implement e-commerce has been the challenge but we created a special task force internally to come up with ways to reduce implementation time and came up with a series of bolt-ons to enable virtual try-on, direct e-commerce, catalogs and telemedicine or teleretail consults, too in a four-to- five-week timetable.

“And our diverse optical systems and lab knowledge of what’s involved behind most ophthalmic/eyecare business and services gives us a true advantage in expediting what can be done for our clients.”

Having an extensive familiarity with the various elements of what goes into dispensing a pair of well-made and measured prescription eyeglasses and all the communication points among practitioners, opticians, selling associates and patients/consumer is a distinct advantage for firms who want to help more eager independents and optical retailers take the e-commerce plunge.

For an ECP to get e-commerce to literally work in a business as multi-dimensional as optical is both cost and time-prohibitive. Observed Dave Barton, cofounder and CEO, Optify, “Actually, to make it work, and we’ve refined this as we’ve developed what we offer now, is to look at the practice website, make sure that search is optimized and then once the patient or consumer gets there, help make it clear about what they can now do on that site.

“Glasses are a buying journey, not an impulse buy. You’re not buying a towel on the internet. You’re buying a pair of prescription eyeglasses. Yes, there’s interactivity that happens. So, you’ve got to do it at the right time in the right way so patients have confidence. It can boost trust and improve captures, too.”

Optify, which launched its business in April 2020, is now working with hundreds of independent practices across the U.S. and a new multi-location service option is coming soon, Barton said.

Vision Monday takes a look here at some of the independent ECPs and optical retailers who are rethinking their approach to e-commerce and their online presence now. They are moving beyond their judgmental and often unfavorable perceptions of online-only players who have competed in the eyewear space for years now, to more confidently tap new digital tools to leverage their ophthalmic expertise, reputations and personal relationships with patients/customers—and new prospects—in a new and modern ways.