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By Barry Santini

During the last decade, most eyecare practices viewed the advent of online prescription eyewear as a non-starter. It seemed like common sense: Why would consumers trust a remote entity to measure, make and deliver quality eyeglasses without seeing the frame or measuring in person?

But as eyewear shoppers become increasingly attracted to online’s promise of variety and value, local opticals are starting to see the rising tide of Internet sales lapping at their front door. With requests for PDs and adjustments entering their daily mix, eyecare professionals are faced with their greatest challenge ever: How to convince today’s skeptical consumer that their eyewear products and services have good value, and that their office is actually a “brand” worth paying extra for. More than just delivering sharp vision, ECPs must go much further and provide an ideal balance of vision, fashion, fit and value benefits that will keep their clients coming back.

Traditionally, the term “20/Happy” was used to describe a prescription that balanced good vision with perceptual comfort. But 20/Happy is now about more than how well someone sees. Today it goes beyond simple acuity, encompassing customer satisfaction and perceived value—two essentials containing latent aspects little appreciated or understood by ECPs. To grasp how this is redefining eyewear value, let’s take a deep dive into what 20/Happy today is all about. Let’s begin by examining how its ingredients—three parts vision, two parts frame and three parts value—come together in a recipe posing significant challenges for all eyecare professionals.

These are the three vision components being triaged in every pair of prescription glasses. Striking the ideal balance between them is the theoretical goal. The day to day reality is very different, often fraught with difficulty in determining the best mix for each wearer. The true art emerges when you learn how to prioritize one, de-emphasize another, and know when not to fix what isn’t broken.

An additional dilemma: Improving one component frequently occurs at the expense of another. For example, by increasing the distance prescription for better nighttime acuity for a moderate myope, just entering presbyopia can negatively impact near utility. Further, if this individual began a new job with increased computer or tablet-use demands, increased visual discomfort is a sure bet at the end of their work day. Juggling these vision components reveals the challenge in obtaining an ideal balance.

Few consumers are knowledgeable, experienced or articulate about their personal eyewear fitting preferences. They can often be confused by a recent poor eyewear experience, offering suggestions about fitting needs that can lead to multiple frame swaps before either party realizes that perhaps an unnecessary and expensive detour has been made.

The same scenario can also unfold with respect to frame fashion. For example, rimless wearers often want to choose a trendy plastic frame—one that doesn’t make friends say they look like a grandparent—only to discover that the weight, bulk and awareness from these styles are unacceptable. When an ECP is asked to “make right” this personal choice, it’s easy to say “tough luck,” but that’s not the right answer today. Rather, it can be more constructive to introduce clients to the idea of an eyewear wardrobe, one featuring multiple pairs based on color, comfort or function. Give them an eyewear box to manage their new wardrobe, and make sure it has at least one more slot than the numbers of pairs currently in play. This is very effective in helping people view the fashion of prescription eyewear as more than a zero-sum game.

ECPs often like to open a dialogue through a lifestyle form that asks explorative questions about fitting and fashion preferences or desires. Although you’ll get answers, remember that many aspects of eyewear that seem clear to us are confusing to a layperson. For example, clients inform you they don’t want nosepads and then immediately select only metal-style frames.

Conveying value in eyewear today is a tricky endeavor. Place the price too high for a top quality boutique pair, and if a screw falls out inconveniently while away on vacation, perceived value can quickly change from positive to negative in the blink of an eye. Trivial to ECPs, these simple inconveniences can easily become the “last straw” if clients have been brown-bagging all their problems or harboring doubts about the value of patronizing your office.

Defining eyewear value today is no longer driven by price alone. It’s a complicated mix containing three parts: one part hidden, one part perceived and one part associated with a long-term perspective. Taken together, these can make a major impact on whether customers will continue to trust you. And trust determines whether they’ll be easily swayed by the eyewear opinions of friends or family, the dictates of a new vision care plan or the lure of low prices on the Internet.

In the last half century, the biggest blunder made by the eyewear industry was bundling. By combining the cost of associated frame and lens-based services including adjustments, repairs, maintenance and warranties with professional services including consultations on eye health, vision, fit and fashion into a single product-based transaction, ECPs did themselves a great disservice. Although convenient from a consumer perspective, product-only pricing gave buyers an over-simplified, price-only reference for comparing eyewear value, thereby hiding the true cost of services that traditional stores have always included in every purchase. So it should come as no surprise that today’s eyewear shopper still finds resonance in the old phrase “glasses are glasses,” which turns the craft of custom-made eyewear into a commodity.

As questions like “How much are your glasses?” pepper more of the dialogues between ECP and prospective buyer, it’s time to develop better answers than responding with dollar amounts or “it depends.” ECPs need to leverage these important opportunities to clearly and concisely communicate the value of their services to all shoppers. And no opportunity is more overlooked than when a price discrepancy is mentioned between frames or glasses bought online and those bought in a store. Rather than respond negatively, use this moment to reveal what’s left out of an online purchase. Explain that online prices are lower because online delivers far less service and expertise than you do. Tell them confidently that being able to try on product, getting it fit for comfort and getting tailored advice on fit, fashion and function has real tangible value.

When asked to match prices with online, emphasize the importance of including expected services in the discussion. Most people want to be fair and will respond in a positive manner to the importance of keeping the discussion an apples-to-apples comparison.

With the consumer trained to use only product prices when determining eyewear value, you can’t blame them for overlooking the value of the adjustments, repairs and pad or screw replacements that have always been done without fee. This also explains why outside eyewear is brought into your store for service: You have told them you are their “eye guy,” (or eye gal) always ready to help sort out their problems. The disconnect comes when ECPs try to collect a reasonable fee for services on outside eyewear. The resulting resentment is undoubtedly felt by both sides. Therefore, brick-and-mortar offices must begin to transition from delivering free services to a model that says low-priced eyewear may seem like a good value, but isn’t when convenience, service and expertise are not included.

Optical offices are no longer competing with just other opticals. They are now playing in a larger retail arena, one where the traditional rules governing product variety, convenience and price have been redefined by new Millennial businesses like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. Today, an optical business must learn how to effectively compete within this new paradigm, where shoppers can easily discover new products, digest in-depth descriptions and review the opinions and experiences of real-world owners. With a simple keystroke, buyers can have their selection delivered to their door in 48 hours, with attractive pricing and even free shipping. Can traditional opticals compete effectively in such a landscape? The answer is they can’t, at least not on a virtual playing field. Instead, ECPs need to clearly understand that their value lies where they excel and online does not.

Virtual try-on and cell phone pictures allow shoppers to quickly sample as many frame styles as they want. But a single style photo, offered up without the context of the other styles being considered, is no better than someone else choosing your meal from a diner’s menu. Your response is typical to what dispensers everywhere hear: “Nah. What else is there?” To really see, feel and evaluate new frame styles, the in-person try-on will remain the gold standard. We’re all too familiar with the following scenario: An eyewear shopper narrows down their selection to a few styles. Now they take a “selfie” with each model, and you watch an hour or more of your consultation time go down the drain as friends and family respond with a well-intentioned but misinformed “thumbs down.” Clearly, eyewear cell phone photos can result in distorted perspectives, inaccurate colors and fail to convey an accurate overall impression that correlates to how eyewear looks in person. Be sure to point out that poor quality cell phone pictures just don’t measure up and may make the selection process even harder. Exhibiting confidence here reinforces your professional expertise and value.

Some consumers immediately tell you they want to try on a lot of frames because they’re looking for that perfect pair. But the reality is that having to wade through a wall of choices can create mental fatigue, eventually making all frames look the same. Here, ECPs should talk about the advantage of having a professional alongside as their personal eyewear shopper, curating the styles to keep the selection in line with their fitting and style preferences. Of course, the real fun begins when they’re lead to styles they wouldn’t have picked out on their own, but discover to be attractive and intriguing. This is a sophisticated service no app can do.

Consumers tasked with working at computers can read about progressive lenses promising increased comfort and relief from eye strain. But online info won’t reveal that these designs can negatively impact night driving or reduce peripheral clarity. Only a trained and experienced professional can help determine which lenses represent the best balance of benefits for an individual’s needs. To ensure access to the widest variety of today’s designs, ECPs are cautioned about entering into business alliances that effectively limit the brands or products you can offer. Having to meet monthly sales minimums for a limited variety of products is rarely in the best interests of either patient or professional.

The reason you hire a general contractor or architect to oversee a home remodel, extension or a new kitchen or bath is that you are willing to pay the extra money in exchange for a single party being responsible for all aspects of your custom job. From coordinating materials and installation, to scheduling labor and related subcontractors, to ensuring quality and compliance with both the letter of the plans and the letter of the law, the GC is ultimately the one accountable for the client’s satisfaction, a responsibility that rarely ends with completion of the final punch list.

In today’s ultra-competitive eyewear market, it’s easy for local optical offices to forget that they are, in essence, the general contractor responsible for ensuring their customers are satisfied with their eyewear. And no matter where the prescription originates—in-house or out—or the lenses, coatings or frame style chosen, the ECP is ultimately the one being paid the big bucks, and you are where the buck ultimately stops. Although it’s convenient to say that clients contribute to the final satisfaction recipe, the reality is that they’re not. Why? Because the inexperienced eyewear consumer can’t fully appreciate all the potential consequences of their choices. And an ECP can’t always confidently predict a satisfactory outcome either. But—and this is important—if you, the eyecare professional, are asking more of your customer’s money than the competition, your customers have a reasonable right to expect that you’ll do what’s necessary to keep them happy.

Big players like Amazon and Apple know the importance of keeping customers satisfied. They strive to make the inconvenience of returns, exchanges, accidents and mishaps as painless as possible. Apple has been known to completely replace a new iPhone at no charge if an unexpected accident occurs shortly after purchase. Worst case scenario, they charge a modest fee or co-pay for covering the same, while simultaneously extending the normal warranty and include coverage for up to two future mishaps. Surprisingly, owners see these additional fees as reasonable and representing good value. Keep this in mind the next time your client’s eyewear has a run-in with a new puppy or baby, or simply has the misfortune to misplace their latest pair. Refrain from charging the full monty for fixing their mishap. You will increase your perceived value, an essential part in today’s formula for office brand building. Maui Jim excels in this regard, imbuing their customer-friendly approach with the “Aloha” spirit moniker. Maui Jim owners love the excellent service they receive, paying it back with loyalty and referrals to the brand. The result is that Maui Jim customers wouldn’t think of buying any other sunglass. This is the exact value proposition you want your office to represent.

It’s a different optical world out there than even a decade ago. ECPs can no longer afford to make strategic mistakes caused by fixation on short-term profits. Certainly not new, ECPs are still unwilling to see the larger eyewear ownership picture from the consumer’s point of view. This prevents them from realizing that efforts to control the buying process by withholding prescriptions, PDs and product SKUs are actually backfiring in the arena of social media and undermine their professional credibility.

Perhaps an ECP’s greatest value lies in knowing how to listen and respect what clients say they need and to intuit their unarticulated wants. Steve Jobs was a true genius in this regard. In 2001, he introduced the iPod, a Walkman-style music player for digital music. Nine years later, he brought out a portable tablet without a printer port, accessory slot, mechanical keyboard or stylus. Tech pundits of the time saw these oversights and forecasted the new iPad would be a sales disaster. History has shown how wrong they were. There’s a lesson here: You must balance listening to your customer’s needs with leading them to new experiences that surprise them. These are the foundations of a successful 21st century brand.

The Value of Tiered Offerings

To avoid engaging in a price war, some ECPs have chosen to take the high road, fitting only the most exclusive frames, lenses and coating products. But by abandoning any type of tiered price structure, you can negatively impact perceived value in a price-sensitized market. For example, a customer’s friends or family may suggest they’re crazy for spending a lot on eyeglasses. They’ll point out that buying eyewear online or elsewhere can be a fraction of a doctor’s office. And although you and your staff may know the real differences, inexperienced consumers don’t.

That’s why having a clear, logical tiered price structure for lenses and frames is essential.

Many vendors now offer a partial credit for unsold, retired frame styles. Instead of constantly exchanging frames, keep the product and take the rebate. Put a prominent 50 percent off sale tag on these models. As you begin to accumulate sale styles, clients will naturally seek them out for their obvious value. And even if they choose a discounted style for their primary pair, the savings realized is easy to redirect to better quality lenses and coatings. It works out to a real win-win value for both shopper and store.

Despite their known health, protection and utility benefits, the average consumer will, if given a choice between wearing glasses or not... well, you already know the answer. Clearly, more than three years on, consumers continue to find tremendous resonance in a story on CBS’s “60 Minutes” about eyeglasses being a product consisting of little more than a few pieces of plastic and metal. It’s obvious that ECPs have done a poor job communicating their value in an eyewear transaction.

Enter Warby Parker, trumpeting their message that eyewear quality and fashion do not have to be expensive. The price point of their $95 bundle was carefully calculated to convey value without appearing too good to be true. Their sales success speaks volumes about people’s latent feelings regarding eyewear value.

Warby’s rapid rise has become a wake-up call for an industry that had become addicted to a type of “low hanging fruit” sale that characterizes markets without real competition. For that alone, we should thank them, because consumer appetite for the convenience and low prices of online is a challenge not abating anytime soon. However, Warby, Amazon and others are beginning to recognize the value of having stores for clients to try out products and receive service and repair. As these companies expand into the brick-and-mortar arena, the good news is that they’ll be playing on optical’s home turf rather than ECPs playing on theirs.

In the meantime, ECPs should stop seeing eyewear purchased outside their office as an intrusion. Rather, these are opportunities to inform present and potential clients to your complete suite of services and discuss exciting new eyewear products, all while you adjust their glasses. Be willing to forgive fees here as a way of saying “come see us again.” Importantly, rather than hanging on to obsolete notions centered on control, start earning back that most valuable of all consumer needs: trust. Never again lose respect for a buying process that rightfully belongs only in the hands of the consumer. And when you hear your clients say “they wouldn’t think of going anywhere else,” take that moment to sincerely thank them. This is the most important way customers acknowledge they’re satisfied, and that your business is a brand deserving of their patronage.

Today, eyecare professionals should resist seeing the costs incurred in keeping customers satisfied as a drain on profits. In an increasingly competitive market, any perceived unwillingness to be sympathetic or helpful when consumers ask for assistance will only work against you remaining their “eye guy” or “eye gal.” ECPs should focus on the bigger picture, where clear vision, comfortable fit, contemporary fashion and clearly communicated value all add up to customers staying on the right side of 20/Happy.

Contributing editor Barry Santini is a New York State-licensed optician and owner of Long Island Opticians in Seaford, N.Y.