In Part 1, published in the March 2021 issue, author Barry Santini explains why, as more consumers shop for and purchase eyeglasses online, it’s increasingly important for opticians to master the skills needed to interact with them remotely. Those “tele-opticianry” skills include video consultations with patients, creating an online intake portal and new tech-enhanced measuring and fitting techniques.
In Part 2, you’ll learn how to make the eyeware selection process more accessible, fun and personalized for patients. Find out how to use virtual try-ons effectively and get exclusive advice from style experts.
By Barry Santini
With all the challenges to the optical business in the last 30 years, from vertical integration of wholesale, to the rise of vision care plans, to the fragmentation of eyewear purchases, it’s interesting to note that the idea of employing an experienced frame stylist has been the one most frowned upon by some members of the opticianry establishment. Yet the importance of the frame stylist today has never been greater, and we should move it into a position of prime respect because styling a client may just be the best path forward for the optical industry.
The first thing to do is to ask why we’ve looked down our noses at the job of frame stylist for so long. I think it’s mainly because there’s been an over emphasis on the traditional skills of optics, lenses, fabrication and fit. With technology rapidly overtaking these areas in both the lab and at the dispensing desk, perhaps it’s the proper time to prioritize styling as that’s probably what we should’ve concentrated on all along: Removing the stigma associated with wearing glasses. But to make sure a stylist’s time is productive and effective, we need to move it from being driven by aimless and unfocused browsing by the buyer to being led by the trained stylist.
BAN THE BROWSING
Typical daily scenario seen in most optical stores:
“I hate this!”
“I hate picking out glasses. I’m always unhappy with them, and feel I could’ve done better if I chose them myself.”
Heard this before? Yes, we all have. We opticians have no one else to blame but ourselves for not being accepted as eyewear style authorities. First of all, not all of us are schooled or trained in style. Like parenting, it’s almost an unspoken thing we’re just somehow “just supposed to know.” But by and large, opticians don’t—and I definitely include myself here. While we certainly need training, there is very little around that is specifically oriented toward eyewear.
The public can’t really pick their glasses style out of a vacuum. That’s why many visit multiple eyewear stores, but browse without a clear purpose, hoping to magically find the frame of their dreams. The process reminds me of looking for wallpaper: “I’ll know it when I see it,” they say. But with so many styles to choose from, wouldn’t the whole process be much better if you had a trusted guide along to help? The problem today, as I see it, is the people typically doing the guiding: family members and friends. Just what formal training do any of these people—no matter how well intentioned—actually have in style and fashion? I think that’s why branded eyewear became such an accepted surrogate for creating a personal sense of style. Looking back to the 1970s, the licensing of brands for eyewear took off. That’s not to say brands don’t have a place within an eyewear wardrobe today. It’s just that there is perhaps another better way—one that sees the trained optician stylist as the very best consultant to see when you are developing your personal sense of style.
PERSONAL EXPRESSION DONE RIGHT
Eyewear style consultation—with try-on at home—was made for an online connection. The buyer can relax at home, try on the suggested styles, sample the opinions of friends and family, and have the opportunity to directly see how styles will complement their wardrobe—rather than having to imagine it in a frenetic store environment. The customer focus, via FaceTime for example, is more exclusive and concierge-like than in a typical eyewear store encounter. And it’s far easier for buyers to understand the process and experience enjoyment by learning to assemble a personal eyewear wardrobe.
CELEBRITIES AND STYLE AWARENESS
Celebrities and their eyewear have always been influential in creating the public’s sense of style in eyewear, particularly someone who makes a strong style statement. Think about these celebrities and what their on-screen eyewear branding did to tie them to their eyewear:
- Sally Jesse Raphael—and what she did for red frames.
- Al Roker—and want he did for men’s frames with strong colors.
- Spike Lee—What else needs to be said?
- Martin Scorsese—Who does chunky better?
Eyewear wardrobe leaders:
- Elton John—The Original. Accept no substitute.
- Sandra Oh—as Rita Wu on the HBO series “Arliss.”
- Kirsten Vangsness—as Penelope Garcia on the CBS series “Criminal Minds.”
It’s fun to help people develop their personal brand with tele-styling! But a central challenge remains: how to see yourself in new frames without your prescription in place. Sure, you can take a selfie, and we all know how well that’s been working out.
But there is a better way: tele-styling using virtual try-on. (See The ABCs of VTO below.)
THE ABCs OF VTO
I spoke with Charlene Nichols, owner of SellSmartNotHard, OpticalNearMe and MyVisionShow. She is one of a few passionate entrepreneurs trying to help independent opticals make the transition to becoming profitable tele-businesses. I asked Nichols why such an exciting and novel technology as virtual try-on—aka VTO—isn’t more common today in independent opticals, even though it’s a technology that originated nearly 30 years ago.
Nichols responds: “I think avoidance of the newest technology can be explained by the industry’s aversion to risk coupled with the fear of losing control. Although VTO technology first appeared in the early 1990s, it’s only recently that it has become robust and facile enough to where we can offer a complete turnkey package. It does require frame companies to become active partners, and the most progressive of these already see the future and are looking to participate. Remember that VTO is a facilitating technology allowing people with vision deficiencies to clearly see both their frame choice and themselves.”
Although using VTO may convey “loss of control” to some, nothing is further from the truth. “VTO is really part of a larger tiered offering properly called Remote Styling Solutions, or RSS. All opticians should take a deep dive into what the latest RSS can do for their business today.” Nichols’ enthusiasm is contagious, and her mantra is “Getting optical peeps excited about their business again.”
CUSTOM STYLING VIA 3D SCANNING
The latest rage in bespoke framing is using a 3D scan from any later model high-end phone with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology installed. The concept behind LiDAR has been around since the 1960s, and this tech scans and maps an object or environment by firing out laser beams and timing how quickly they return. What radar did with radio and microwaves, LiDAR does with light waves, using lasers. The resulting meshwork of images is then stitched together to form an accurate 3D representation of the object being scanned. In the case of eyewear, the scan is the wearer’s head. One of the early pioneers applying this to custom eyewear was the company Roger Bacon Eyewear, who used the scan to accurately 3D print nylon eyewear in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. The main promise was vastly improved fit. Today, companies such as Topology Eyewear and 3DNA Eyewear offer the buyer an even larger array of custom styling options, making this technology close to total wish fulfillment for the buyer. If you have clients who fancy themselves as artists or who have strong artistic tendencies, these companies could be great partners to work with.
WHY TELE-OPTICIANRY NOW?
The word Tele—meaning across—has taken on new importance in the 21st century. Living in an interconnected age, it’s inevitable that the flexibility, convenience and cost savings gained by not having to travel from home to work, shop or see a doctor would eventually become the normal way of doing things. So why not optical? After all, the optical business has been undergoing fragmentation for decades. Consider this:
- Eyewear purchasing is no longer exclusive to where the exam is performed.
- Frame purchasing is no longer exclusive to where the lenses are fabricated.
- Styling is no longer exclusive to where the lenses are made.
- Adjustments, repair and after sale care are no longer exclusive to where eyewear is purchased.
Why has optical been so slow to embrace this? I think it’s because the initial focus of online eyewear has been to make consumers see glasses as a commodity. The optical establishment’s answer has been to point out how online tries to circumvent the spirit and sanctity of laws originally designed to protect the public from harm. But with eight decades having elapsed since opticianry first became licensed, the truth today is much simpler: There is no clear evidence that wearers experience permanent harm from a pair of glasses, even those delivered via online. Discomfort yes, but not harm. Therefore, the optical industry should stop fearing the potential loss of market control—control that regulation has bestowed—and start embracing the bright multichannel future of online and tele-opticianry.
To be sure, there are issues remaining regarding compliance with lens impact safety, as well as medical and personal privacy. Perhaps now is the time to revisit and revise the old regulations, written when dispensing untempered glass lenses was routine and really did present a legitimate risk of harm. And we should revise them before the internet does it for us, by actively moving opticianry out of its dreadfully antiquated present state. Is such a scenario scary? You betcha. We should also commit to becoming engaged in rewriting the curricula used to educate the next generation of opticians, and include a proper grounding in style and fashion. By doing so, any fears about loss of control will be more than offset by the opportunity that new sales channels will provide.
GETTING FRAMED BY GOGOSHA
I’ve always said that if you walk up to the average person on the street and ask: “Given a choice, would you wear eyeglasses?” Their answer would almost always be “No.” Up until now.
Increasingly, clients are offering up pics of public personalities wearing glasses they find attractive or inspirational. “Do you carry them? I’m looking for styles like that!” Sure, this can be a great jumping off point to start the eyewear selection process. But it is also inherently limiting, because the journey to pick the single “perfect frame” is, well, boring. How can we make it less so? A good start would be by becoming better versed in the vocabulary and world of eyewear styling. Frame styling—which might be more properly called “frame composition”—is an aspect of eyewear so natively important to the ultimate pleasure of the buyer, that it’s a wonder why it’s never included in the curricula of optical schools. And I think this sin of omission is one we can no longer afford to forgive.
As I close in on 50 years in this industry, it is painful to realize that I’ve never been properly grounded in the world of frame fashion. To this end, I heard about a Los Angeles-based optician—Julia Gogosha—who is renowned for her eyewear expertise. So I decided to dial her up and interview her for this article, which was originally to be about virtual try-on, or VTO.
After hearing Gogosha’s thoughts and unique take on her version of virtual fitting, I was completely smitten. Gogosha states her virtual fitting tries to replicate what the Gogosha Optique in-store experience had become. The next day I was excited to tell her that I was interested in being scheduled for a virtual fitting consultation by Gogosha. Her response: “We’ll have fun. Here when you are ready.” That did it. I went to her website and reviewed the sign-up procedure, which was easy. Unlike a store, which is really a neutral territory requiring little commitment on the part of a shopper, having to pay a fee and appointment for a virtual fitting qualified me as a truly interested prospective customer. The Gogosha Optique Virtual Fitting typically unfolds as follows:
- Read and understand the disclaimers.
- Sign the digital contract. Enter your credit card information, which is charged a fee up front for the one hour virtual consult. You agree the CC information will be kept on file for payment for any additional charges, as needed.
- You select your Gogosha optician—Julia is one of seven available—and appoint on the website’s calendar.
- You complete an intake form, which covers aspects of your personal style, wants and desires. You also select your choice among several secure video methods to interact with the Gogosha optician.
- You’ll upload three photos of yourself—with and without your present eyewear—for the Gogosha Optician to use in their preliminary curation of the styles they will present.
- You’ll receive emails reminding you of the upcoming appointment and giving you the opportunity to reschedule, if needed.
- The appointed time arrives, and the virtual consultation begins.
Gogosha had preliminarily selected 16 frame styles for me. Using one of her new custom designed “Optikarts,” she presented each style, trying each on herself in succession, all while describing the frame’s design, style, inspiration, materials, unique attributes and designer or company philosophy. She also describes why she chose each style for me. Her language is fluid and easy. She makes it seem so simple, yet so engaging. Individual frame details become important focal points. “This Jacques Marie Mage features an engraved temple core with a clear reveal. This way you can actually enjoy and see the skeleton of the frame.” These have not been words I typically use when presenting frames. Gogosha adds, “Of course my face is not your face. But as (the optician) tries each frame on, the client is able to see and appreciate the essential differences between them.” Having experienced this firsthand, I strongly agree.
After going through the initial selection of 16 styles, it’s now time to review and create the first seeding, or hierarchal placement, in order to trim down the initial selection to something that becomes more essential. Gogosha gently places her hand on each style and asks if we should make it a keeper. I interact conversationally with her, and we winnow the original 16 to about 11 styles.
These will be sanitized, boxed, packaged and shipped fully insured to the address I tendered on the intake form. After receipt, I have seven days to return the frames without additional charges. The Virtual Fitting fee includes up to five frames to be tried on at home. Any additional frames beyond the initial five will each incur a $50 fee (Gogosha waived this fee for me), which is charged to the card on file.
Here’s a peek at some of the interaction that makes working with Julia Gogosha so special:
“What do you think about these?” Gogosha asks, as she points to the next couple of styles.
I respond: “I’m not sure.”
Gogosha adds, holding one up: “I’m comme ci, comme ca too,” meaning neither this nor that.
“I like those!” I exclaim, as she holds up the next style.
“Then these become comme ci!” she declares.
After receipt of the frames—where almost every style fit close to perfect on me right out of the box—I opted to schedule a 30 minute “follow-up consult” session to review and obtain Gogosha’s opinion of the styles on me directly. One of the styles, a Jacques Marie Mage gold titanium, was so unbelievably gorgeous in fit and feel, that I wore it for the rest of the consult. She suggests a blue-green peacock tint would complement the JMMs perfectly. “I agree!” I said, and then I asked how her lab would go about matching her intended tint. “Oh, the lab doesn’t do our custom tints—we do.” At this point, I decided to return the YG JMM frame and have Gogosha Optique supply the tinted Rx lenses complete. I am brimming over with excitement! With Gogosha’s lead, we arrived at my first eyewear wardrobe. “These four and I doubt you’ll revisit any frame you’ve worn before this experience,” she states. And she’s right.
With my selection now narrowed down to four frames, you take a good flash picture, head on, for the Gogosha team to fully understand the fit and use as the basis for PD and height measurements. Remember: They know the frame’s size, so this is far superior than using a CC typically used as the scaler in most online endeavors. Now all the styles are returned, and you await receipt of the finished eyewear! In the meantime, you’re invited to shop Gogosha’s personally curated accessories, including custom single, double and multi-pair cases, leashes, cords, cloths, cleaners and eyeglass holders. Some items are seasonal, and some are true limited editions. Eyeglass shopping has never been so much fun!
A SAMPLE OF GOGOSHA WISDOM
“Eyewear should not be about just a brand name stamped at the temple of a frame, but about a personal statement, a physical enhancement and a representation of the wearer.” (From the Gogosha Optique website)
“It’s about developing your personal branding and personal expression.”
On encouraging people to try on glasses: “If you don’t like it, you take it off. Trying on glasses is easy, unlike shopping for clothes, which requires commitment.” Meaning—going into a dressing room, taking off your clothes, trying on new clothes, and stepping outside for opinions.
Not everyone can be a Julia Gogosha. It takes talent, training, commitment and experience. But that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t try. People once went to Coco Chanel to be coutured. Now they go to Gogosha. Visit instagram.com/gogoshaoptique to see her virtual fitting.
GOING MOBILE: THE ORIGINAL TELE-OPTICIAN
Long before Warby Parker entered the eyewear market with its message to “Try on five pairs at home,” the mobile optician existed. Back when I started in the mid-1970s, I even did my bit as a mobile optician. When I first got my license, I started going to local nursing homes once a week to handle all things eyewear for the resident seniors, including repairs, adjustments and new glasses. Today, more and more opticians are making a career for themselves by becoming mobile opticians. Of course, among the most famous has to be Home Optics of Anchorage, Alaska. In 2008, they rose to prominence because they helped style Sarah Palin in her now famous rimless glasses. Although now closed, it was stated that they offered Palin the opportunity to choose from “over 300 frames.” It took me a moment to realize that this is probably the functional limit of what any mobile optician could reasonably transport to a buyer’s home.
Today, there are many opticians around the world who are mobile-based exclusively, and have no store and its related overhead. But you could just as easily have a toe dipped in both waters—store and mobile. There are even FaceBook pages for them to meet and talk shop about being a mobile optician. Check it out.
It is an understatement to say that brick-and-mortar optical people, by and large, hate online. And why not? Online has a commoditizing effect on everything, so why not eyeglasses? This accelerated a little over 10 years ago, when the eyewear industry was blindsided by a disrupter called Warby Parker. Founded by four graduates of the Wharton School of Business, Warby’s original position statement included calling out the optical field as a bunch of “greedy middlemen.” And the truth is, the industry had grown fat and complacent over the years, losing touch with the need to convey its added value. A few years later, Leslie Stahl of “60 Minutes” fame referred to eyeglasses as “a couple of pieces of plastic, some wire and some screws and lenses,” tapping into the public’s long held perception that eyewear was overpriced.
An old saying goes: “If you don’t scavenge your business, someone else will.” The optical field gave Warby their opening by not offering decent quality complete eyewear packages. Today, with online shopping firmly entrenched, optical must now decode how best to market to an online-based audience. All it will take is the desire to get comfortable with emerging technologies like virtual try-on and virtual fitting that help to create satisfied customers, no matter how far away they live from your store.
Concentrating on styling is the best way to begin expanding your business, because style organically stimulates want. And want stimulates purchasing, especially if your goal is to create an eyewear wardrobe of personal expression.
TELE-HAPPY: AN OUT-OF-STORE EXPERIENCE
“Digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection,” says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. “(But) digital technology should help human connection when there are constraints of space and time.” And our daily life today is full of constraints of space and time. With banking, food shopping, social gathering and now even dating comfortably embraced online, it’s high time optical started to pivot with a purpose to do the same. Adopting a concierge-like focus on service can be a renewing event for opticians, who are really only tapping into what they’ve always done best. Tele-opticianry is no different than tele-medicine: If the doctor can be out, so can the optician.
Yes, tele-opticianry fragments the classic in-store approach, one which we’ve defended as the gold standard for a long time. But fragmentation isn’t always bad. People who are passionate about cooking are routinely fragment shopping for the best ingredients, actively going from store to store in their quest for the best stuff. Why would anyone think the optical consumer wouldn’t do the same? We’re already seeing the rise of online companies such as Lensabl and LensFactory, as they answer the increasing consumer demand to have their own frames re-lensed with their latest Rx. Think about that next time you create obstacles like frame waivers designed to essentially deter the reuse of otherwise good condition frames. Maybe the answer here is for brick-and-mortar optical to revisit another one of its root traditions and put back into the store a state-of-the-art finishing lab. And with freeform’s new digital Rx blending, the obstacles surrounding the handling of heavier corrections are far less likely to steer frame choice away from a buyer’s favorite style. Remember: Fifty years ago, skilled opticians strongly pushed back when Varilux 2 introduced prism thinning as a way to trim the thickness and weight of progressive lenses. Yet today, prism thinning is comfortably accepted and expected in every progressive lens.
Will mistakes happen and eyeglasses go wrong in tele-opticianry? Sure, but as we get comfortable with this new and strange adventure, I predict that more and more consumers will become tele-happy buyers. And if you’ve written your customer service guidelines properly, they’ll always trust you, and grant the opportunity to fix anything that goes wrong. The rest of your brand perception is then up to you.
Optician extraordinaire Julia Gogosha asked me: “What do you hate the most about something you passionately love?” Reflect on this question for a moment, and imagine starting to connect with customers outside the confines of your store. The tele-optician might just be the ultimate personal shopper for eyewear in the 21st century. That’s reason enough to get excited about the optical business again.■
Contributing editor Barry Santini is a New York State licensed optician and contact lens fitter with Long Island Opticians in Seaford, N.Y..