When Will Brick Add Click?



The leading traditional brick-and-mortar optical retailers are still reluctant to sell products online…
or at least to speak about any plans to do so.

As part of the larger trend of people shopping for virtually everything online, consumers are also using the web with increasing regularity to purchase eyeglasses as well. While opinions differ regarding online optical retailing, there’s no denying that some companies are already making money selling eyeglasses online and gearing up to make much more. The majority of these are not connected with any traditional brick-and-mortar optical retailers or manufacturers, but rather they are upstarts that are taking advantage of the internet and digital media and forging a new distribution channel (see “Online Retailers Talk Shop,”.)

In fact, when Vision Monday reached out to the leading national and regional brick-and-mortar retailers in the U.S. to ask them about their plans regarding online retailing, most were silent on this topic, preferring to keep what they might be doing in the online space confidential at this point. It’s this consistent reluctance among them to discuss online optical retailing on the part of the brick-and-mortar retailers that might actually point to the fact that there is some planning going on in corporate boardrooms regarding how they’ll respond to the steadily growing competition coming from online-only optical retailers.

Most of the traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are playing their cards close to their chest, in effect saying that they can neither confirm nor deny that launching an online retail eyeglass store is in their plans. However, some have already begun to sell contact lenses online or added the ability to virtually try on frames to their websites. A few have even begun or will soon actually begin to offer eyeglasses for sale online. Whatever stage they are at, “everybody knows it’s going to happen,” as one executive representing one of the leading national chains said about online optical retailing.

Those who were willing to talk about this controversial subject suggested that online retailing is a strategic issue for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, and before they can launch a website that will enable them to sell eyewear online, they must first determine how they’ll handle pricing, delivery, and other competitive concerns while also not jeopardizing their existing stores or their relationships with their patients and suppliers.

Still, some did reveal that although they may not be currently selling products online they may be doing so soon. “Presently, we’re not selling anything online. It will be about three months before we do,” said Gordon Bishop, president and CEO of Sunland Optical, with 36 stores, based in El Paso, Texas.

“Online sales of frames and contacts certainly has proven its value to many consumers,” said Suzanne Berardi-Gould, director of creative services for Doctors Vision Center, with 45 stores, based in Rocky Mount, N.C., “and we will be testing online sales as a part of our integrated strategy in 2012.”

However, like most traditional optical retailers, Berardi-Gould did point out the prevailing view among them about the benefits of the personal touch that comes with being able to visit a physical location. “We believe there is a distinct advantage that we have over online purchases by having a patient relationship with the doctor and frames stylist in the practice versus what happens online,” she said.

This was actually the more prevalent attitude among the national and regional chains, with some simply negating any competition that might come from online sales. “Although we respect those marketing eyewear online, from our perspective, at this point, it’s not something we concern ourselves with in our stores,” said Richard Golden, CEO of SEE, with 24 locations, based in Southfield, Mich.

Anushka Figueroa, director of marketing and brand management for Nationwide Vision, with 64 locations, based in Chandler, Ariz., agreed that the focus of the large Arizona chain she represents will remain where it’s been. “Because of all of our locations, we don’t want to get away from selling frames in our brick-and-mortar stores,” she said.

Judd Sky, president of Partners in Vision, with 34 locations, based in Linden, N.J., alluded to why some traditional retailers may be reluctant to venture into the realm of online sales, even while “putting our toes in the water exploring it.” He said, “We have concerns about the quality of service as well as the legality of pure online sales. These concerns, along with our store presence, have made us slow to embrace purely online sales. However, we have expanded our online presence to include virtual try-on of frames, listing frame brands carried, and messaging with patients.”

Sky takes a more philosophical approach to his group’s plans regarding going online: “We see online sales not as a yes or no question, but as a spectrum. Even pure brick-and-mortar retailers need an online presence for such purposes as marketing, social media presence, store location and hours, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, even relatively pure online retailers need some in-person expertise to acquire measurements and perform repairs and adjustments, as well as a place to try on frames. The larger segment is the brick-and-mortar store with an online presence which can provide the convenience of online sales with the comfort and service of in-store assistance.”

Still, while most traditional brick-and-mortar stores have not yet made the leap into online eyeglass retailing, many are primarily selling only contact lenses. “The only products we sell online are contact lenses,” said Figueroa of Nationwide Vision.

The same is true for Optyx, the New York area retailer with nine locations, based in New Providence, N.J. “We are currently selling contacts online,” said Mitchell Barkley, president. “We are not selling frames and sunglasses.”

“We only do a small amount of online contact lens business through our Lens123.com,” added George Yanoshik, a spokesman for the HVHC Retail Group, based in Pittsburgh, Pa., with 541 locations, including Eye Care Centers of America and VisionWorks stores.

And Don Bye, vice president of optical services for ShopKo Stores, with 137 stores based in Green Bay, Wis., said, “Our only activity on the web is our own contact lens site.”