Measuring Up Against Online Retailers: Using Patient Education to Win Back the Optical Sale
By Keli O'Connor, COMT, ABOC July 01, 2021
Since its inception, online glasses retailers have been the biggest threat to independent and regional practices since the boom of national retail chains. However, smaller businesses have been able to put their differences with the corporate giants aside in this fight against online services. The demand for online opticianry was already growing following the social distancing restrictions the country experienced throughout the pandemic, but now online business is booming.
Admittedly, web optical outfitters boast several appealing features: convenience, customization, and affordability. Without having to leave home, customers can input their personal and refractive information and select a frame they like with cheap lenses to have shipped wherever they'd like. It seems almost too good to be true.
But how good are online glasses retailers? Do they really work? That depends on a number of factors. If a patient has a minor single vision spherical correction and knows their exact pupillary distance, then the chance that they will be happy with their glasses is pretty good. Same for those who predominantly wear contacts and are looking for a cheap pair of glasses to wear for the moments between taking their lenses out and going to bed at night. Even so, miscalculations and distortions in the lens may cause discomfort, and returns for online glasses purchases aren't always cut-and-dry.
For patient peace of mind, explaining the benefits of purchasing in-office as opposed to taking their scripts online is always the best bet. Concisely pinpointing the differences between online and in-person sales and how that directly can affect their vision, not to mention their wallets, is crucial to maintaining them as customers and prevent them from taking their PDs to the web.
Measurements can make or break a pair of glasses. An optician can sit with a patient, help select a frame based on their aesthetic and refractive needs, measure pupillary distance, measure segment heights, and adjust for prism all in one sitting. Online, it is up to the patient to enter their script and measurement information correctly, which, if off by mere millimeters, can cause swim, distortion, or blur. A frame may look fantastic in photos, but when a 2D photo becomes a real-life, 3D product in their hands, customers are often left upset and angry. How a frame looks on versus a “virtual try-on” or subtle differences in color can make for a disappointing purchase. Too large a frame may look unappealing but could also add increased weight if the patient's script is substantial enough, which may not be sufficient reason for a return or exchange according to certain retailers' return policies.
The main difference between purchasing online and in-office with an optician, aside from precise, in-person measurements, is the guarantee of the product. When a patient receives their new eyewear from a dispensing optician, they are guaranteed to have the lenses they discussed with the coatings they paid for. When purchasing glasses online, especially through many off-market websites, there is no true way to determine lens material or coating efficacy. The difference between a five-dollar lens and a ninety-dollar lens is invisible. Non-impact resistant plastic lenses may be responsible for the dramatic difference in price, but the health risks associated with that lens option might not be worth the price. Ensuring patients that any lens sold in the office meets national standards and informing them of any product guarantees helps build trust in both their new eyewear and the optical shop.
Because many patients have been asking physicians and opticians for their PDs prior to leaving the office, across the country many practices have created rules or posted signs on the sales floor regarding these measurements. Like the rest of their health information, patients are entitled to any measurements that may be in their charts. If their PD is not already in their file, some practices elect to charge a fee to measure and dispense that information to the patient on top of the fee incurred from their prescription. The problem with this is that patients may feel distrust toward the practice with the addition of fees for a simple measurement—if a practice was genuinely interested in helping a patient, would they be charging them extra for the distance between their eyes? If you scrutinize your average lifetime customer value metrics, you might want to reconsider charging for pupillary distance. We need to work on improving our unique value proposition to convert that patient into a loyal customer.
At the end of the day, providing the best customer service and the best quality of care is what is going to give your practice an edge against online sales. Patient education is one of the most crucial parts of retaining customers in optical, but it goes beyond keeping a sale. Warning patients of the problems they can expect to encounter when purchasing eyewear online while detailing the value of the products available in the office may help deter them from taking their business online. Some people may already have their minds made up and have no interest in buying glasses once they have their script, but most are at least willing to look at what options your office has to offer. Recognizing this opportunity as that- an opportunity - and educating patients on how your practice can contribute to their vision needs may just prevent them from walking out and going online.