Retail Strategies: Retail Design


The Lens Issue

Now is the time to fill ’er up with premium

—Shari Sanders
(with contributions from Jackie Micucci, Gloria Nicola and James Spina

Bad economy. Good economy. Rimless frames. Thick black zyls. Value frames. Jewel encrusted eyeglasses. No matter what the scenario (or frame) one thing remains clear: Lenses are the true and crucial partner to the perfect eyewear package. And optical dispensers know that one of the keys to success lies in the premium push. Offering top lens technology such as progressives, high-index and anti-reflective coating and explaining to the patient/customer the  features and benefits they provide makes all the difference.

In the past year, D. Wayne Richards, owner/optician of The Eyeglass Place in Landsdale, Pa. has expanded his premium lens selection, specifically photochromics. “Advanced lens materials cost more, but the cost is justified.” He explains the cost/value quotient to the client, highlighting the product’s dual purpose. “I tell them photochromic lenses can take care of about 80 percent of their eyecare needs and may save them money on a pair of expensive sunglasses.” Richards has also invested in new, high-priced equipment such as special stones, wheels and dry-cutting edges to “work on a growing mix of polycarbonate, Trivex and other high-index lenses.”

“I’ve upgraded my lens selection and added higher-end frames from Ziggy and Alain Mikli,” says Izzy Hersh, owner of Linden Optical in Brooklyn, N.Y. “In uncertain economic times, I have to differentiate myself from the next guy. If I carry exclusives in the area, that gives my customers an extra reason to shop here.”

Hersh, like many retailers, credits progressive lenses for helping pad his bottom line in tough times. “For some customers, there is no other choice,” he notes. “They walk in and that’s what they want, no matter the cost.”

Progressives account for about 97 percent of the lens business at Edward Beiner Purveyors of Fine Optics, a six-unit South Florida chain. “When we are introducing a customer to lenses, we offer progressives right off the bat,” says Dawn Lerner, licensed managing optician. The progressive sale is generally a smooth one, with vanity playing a key role in the customer’s preferences. “It’s unheard of to wear lines in South Florida,” notes Lerner, whose home base is the Beiner shop located in the affluent Pine Crest section of Miami Beach. She notes in particular the popularity of Varilux Panamic lenses.

Brand recognition plays its role, as well. “Oftentimes customers know exactly what they want when they enter the store,” says Mary Vinson, an optician with Newnan, Ga.-based Newnan Family Eyecare. She adds that progressives make up about 60 percent of Newnan’s total lens volume. “Some ask for brands like Varilux because they’ve seen ads on television or in magazines.”

For Alan Weiner, president of Spex on Clark, an upscale shop in Chicago, brands such as Varliux and Zeiss carry weight. “We only use brand names. It’s important when you’re selling someone a high-ticket item, you have to be able to back it [up with a name brand]. It’s like buying a diamond, you want to know that you are getting quality.” The 40-year vet says trust is a major factor in the purchase and in customer loyalty. “My clients are comfortable in the knowledge that I am steering them in the right direction.”

The key to a successful premium lens sale is customer education. Vinson says she is happy to patiently educate prospective progressive lens clients about the product. The dispenser conducts demos using a plano lens at the top and a +2.00 lens at the bottom. The client holds the lens on their nose and is shown reading cards. Vinson demonstrates how the focal point changes and lets customers know how long they should expect the eye adaptation period to last once they begin to wear their own progressive lenses. “After the demo,” she says, “they’re hooked.”

Debonair Eyes in San Luis Obispo, Calif., packages coatings in one neat eyewear sale. “We use manufacturers’ demo packages like the Nikon Performance Package from Essilor Labs,” says Deborah Kurpjuweit, co-owner and optician, noting the price list includes such extras as anti-reflective coatings and polishings.

Kurpjuweit is especially excited about Teflon, a new anti-glare coating she first learned of through her Sola Labs rep a couple of months ago. “It’s more expensive than the other glare-resistant or scratch-resistant coatings, but it’s the best I have ever seen. Absolutely every office should look at it. It cleans up better, scratches less. It improves vision tremendously.”

In addition, Kurpjuweit offers her clients a wide array of coatings, including choices from Zeiss and Crizal. “I like to match the coatings to the frames,” she says.

Optician Lori Ashley is adamant when it comes to recommending A-R to all of her patients at Indianapolis’ Downtown Eyecare. “A-R is the ultimate premium add-on,” she says. “We think it’s a given. Anyone working on computers needs to consider anti-reflective as a basic necessity.” The issue of prescriptions dedicated to computer work has also become a priority for the dispenser. “Our OD is constantly resourcing intermediate products such as Sola’s Access for patients needing near-focus vision correction,” notes Ashley.

Joel Dembo, owner of Done Right Optical in Wheaton, Ill., also stresses the need for computer users to have the latest in corrective vision. “Pretty much everyone I speak with uses a computer for some task or another,” he says, noting the benefits of computer lenses, which supply greatly improved mid-range vision and close-up magnification.

Most retailers say they haven’t noticed any major price increases in premium lenses of late. Yet some have seen price hikes in photochromics. And while in gentler economic times they might not have been forced to pass on frequent cost increases to their customers, today is a different story. “A dollar here, a dollar there,” says Dembo of Done Right Optical, adding he hasn’t felt the pinch this year yet, but has seen photochromic lens prices rise about 8 percent in the past 12 months.

Polarized lenses are another premium lens that sells well among dispensers who know how to explain their glare-reducing benefits. “Customers have reacted very well to the recent introduction of Bell Optics polarized colored lenses,” says Lerner of Beiner, noting that they are offered in such shades as purple and teal. “Once clients opt for polarized lenses, they will never go back,” adds Weiner of Spex on Clark.

While optical professionals’ appreciation and acceptance of lens technology continues to blossom, their embrace of the Internet as a business tool is not nearly as enthusiastic. Some retailers we spoke with don’t even have computers in their stores. When asked if they would consider ordering or reordering lenses online anytime soon, a few balk. “We’re set up to order and reorder by fax,” says Lerner. “And it works well for us.”

Not all retailers are technophobic, though. Vinson of Newnan says her shop installed a DSL line about two years ago. “We use it to send info to our lab and it’s definitely speeded things up for us.”

Debonair Eyes takes online action a step further by using Vision Web, which offers direct-to-supplier online ordering of frames, lenses and other supplies. Kurpjuweit, who has been a member of Vision Web for less than a year, praises its practicality and performance. “It’s very easy to use and I’m not really that computer literate,” she says. “Let’s say I sold a Marchon frame. I log onto Vision Web, buy the frame and they ship it to my participating lab.

Much more streamlined than if I ordered the frame from Marchon directly and had it shipped by courier from my shop to my lab in San Jose.” Online turnaround time is the same Kurpjuweit notes, but usually better.

Downtown Eyecare’s Lori Ashley is also becoming increasingly and securely dedicated to online ordering when it comes to lens products. “Vision Web has simplified the ordering process, especially in the area of premium packaging,” she says. “As a one-stop shopping source the web is the way to go. There might have been some initial kinks but our Essilor sales rep was dedicated to working out all the details. The operation is now near-flawless.”

Although still thriving, the Somerset, N.J.-based optometric practice of Geri Bauer, OD, is feeling the pressures of a weak economy. “We are definitely more price sensitive than we used to be. We pay more attention to the deals offered by lens companies and distributors and use those deals to ours and the patients’ advantages. We now buy stock lenses in bulk from one distributor because of the discount incentive offered,” the OD explains.
But Dr. Bauer emphasizes her practice has not passed any price increases along to the customers. “We are very sensitive to such economic impact as the loss of jobs on families. We are a family practice and we make a business out of catering to each member’s needs. We have fought to keep our patient base from leaving us for discount optical outlets. Our practice has more than kept up with the downward trend through flexibility and more discounts, while maintaining quality service and affordable pricing,” she notes.

Dr. Bauer also says she has not intentionally cut back on any lens products she offers her customers. The practice’s main lens sources are Nassau, Nova and Wise. However, she does notice when patients have a choice between different brands of progressives, for example, more are opting for less expensive lenses. “But we continue to offer a wide range of brands,” the OD says.

She adds she has not seen any significant changes in lens pricing from companies or distributors. But Dr. Bauer feels the price for lens edging has increased. Her practice, however, does the majority of its lens edging in-house.

The OD has also not noticed much lens switching among progressive lens wearers. “Most patients who already wear progressives want the same lens again. Rarely does someone switch from a progressive to a line bifocal or trifocal.” She also says most of her first-time presbyopes have heard about progressive lenses from friends and come in knowing that ‘s what they want. “The real challenge is the explanation and training involved in helping a first-time progressive wearer adjust to the lenses,” she notes.

Dr. Bauer does most of her lens ordering by fax. “We currently do not order lenses online,” she says. “We would be happy to order online if the companies could provide incentives and possibly some instruction on the most efficient way to do so.” —Gloria Nicola