By Barry Santini

Being an avid shopper on eBay, I recently ran across a vendor from China advertising a Wayfarer-style look-alike with ice blue flash mirror sunglass lenses. So far, nothing special.


Then I noted that they are available in minus-powered Rxs, ranging from -1.00 to -4.00 diopters, in one diopter increments. After checking the price, my curiosity got the better of me, and I reached the “How could I go wrong” conclusion.

Less than three weeks later, the glasses arrived in a soft padded mailer from China. I opened them, examined them, tried them on and uttered “Wow!” At -4.00D, they were the closest power I could order to my spherical equivalent. I must say it was damn impressive considering I could “see” out of them, felt OK (despite the glasses finished PD being 12 mm wider than mine; I do like base in prism) and their delivered cost was... wait for it... $2.26!

What also impressed me was the fact that the Chinese supplier was dealing with an invisible customer, one they would never see, at least in person. Yet they managed to deliver a product that, while not perfect, was of reasonably good quality and offered good value, too. This “Invisible Man” was a happy customer.

This experience challenged my long-held belief, which I share with many other optical retailers and eyecare professionals, that making quality eyewear requires dealing with people in a face-to-face environment. We believe that the knowledge gleaned from the intimacy of an in-person encounter is essential to achieving an involving, informative and mutually rewarding interaction with the eyewear consumer.

Yet more Invisible Men and Women are buying eyewear than ever before, both from online-only retailers, other retailers and ECPs who have websites of their own. In light of this, the urgent question being asked of the traditional eyecare community today is: “Can you make a pair of quality glasses for a person you never see?”

The response from ECPs is swift and sure: “Without the ability to use a pen, ruler, eye and ear to directly assess physical measurements and evaluate the look, feel and fit of a frame and discover the buyer’s individual needs, wants, desires and expectations, there’s no way you can truly make a great pair of eyewear.”

But does this still hold true in an expanding informational age, one where data derived from orders for a patient’s prescription with physical measurements can be crunched to help design, manufacture and distribute eyewear products that promise to satisfy more than ever before? Is there more to delivering great quality eyewear than having the right data?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s take a look behind what goes into the making of great eyewear in the first place.

MAKING GREAT EYEWEAR
Ask any ECP what it takes to make great eyewear, and their responses will most assuredly contain phrases such as “quality frames and lenses!” And although a great start, a product-based response is really woefully inadequate in describing what goes into truly great eyewear. Surely good fit, fashion and function should not be assumed to follow any high quality frame or lens selection. If it did, the challenges of delivering quality eyewear would have been solved a long time ago. Rather, the real art of making great eyewear lies in achieving an ideal balance between optics, cosmetics, comfort and value for each individual wearer. Let’s take an in depth look at what goes into achieving this balance:

  1. Optics—Good optics is, in itself, a shorthand term for achieving a fundamental balance between three subjective qualities: Acuity, Comfort and Utility.
    1. Acuity—Also known as sharpness of vision. As eyecare professionals know, satisfactory acuity varies from individual to individual and often ends up at odds with professional notions of what is the best vision a patient should have.
    2. Comfort—Ease of transitioning from the old Rx/pair of glasses to the new. Encompasses perceptual and spatial comfort, and is best described as an overall feeling on the part of the wearer that their glasses just feel “right.”
    3. Utility—This quality describes whether the wearer finds the eyewear delivers functional vision for the task at hand. Oftentimes however, wearer expectations are left either uncommunicated or undiscovered, resulting in visual utility far from appropriate for the expected tasks.
  2. Cosmetics—Cosmetics is perhaps the most subjective ingredient in the great eyewear recipe, with opinions of the same lying squarely “in the eye of the beholder.” The category of cosmetics includes:
    1. The appearance of the frame style on the face.
    2. The appearance of the prescription in the frame.
    3. The overall appearance of the complete finished eyewear.
    It is common to find opticians and other interested parties—family, friends, children and coworkers—often facing off against one another on the subject of eyewear cosmetics because each side possesses strongly differing opinions on what looks “good.” But there does seem to be at least one area all parties agree on when it comes to eyewear cosmetics: The need to reduce or conceal any telltale that the eyewear is prescriptive. Along with both comfort and optics, the exact nature of how much any individual will accept or tolerate their present eyewear “look” being messed with is dependent on a lot of factors, the greatest influencer of which is the opinions of friends and family. ECPs see examples of this in action every day in the endless number of selfies taken during frame and sunglass selection. In fact, no other category in creating great eyewear is so dependent on or influenced by the opinion of people other than the wearer.
  3. Comfort—Fit, fitting preference, material sensitivity, frame thickness, design and the eyewear’s overall stiffness and weight are important contributors to the making of great eyewear. A proper balance between optics, cosmetics and comfort is therefore the bedrock upon which the foundation for great eyewear is built. But there is at least one more contributing factor that should not be overlooked, one that can and often does impact overall wearer satisfaction with their eyewear: value.
VALUE IN EYEWEAR
I think it’s hard to define what good value is when applied to eyewear. For many it centers strictly on the price paid. For others, value is directly related to the amount of savings realized. Still others tie value to the quality or prestige of the frame material used. Branding of frame or lenses can also be a great influencer on perceived quality. Yet many buyers focus on convenience, which includes product care, access to after-purchase service and replacement parts or repair. Finally, value is accrued to the overall gestalt of ownership, which includes all personal and point of contact exchanges, hands-on product experience—including cases, holders and cleaning accessories—warranties, service, ease of doing business and realizing that all customer expectations are met, whatever they may be. With all these factors in mind, it’s easy to see that parties on both sides of an eyeglass transaction can and will differ in their idea of exactly what constitutes good value. This means estimating eyewear value is an inherently gray area, one that is without sharply defined or accepted borders, which allows for a wide latitude of individual perspectives on exactly what is acceptable value. With this gray area defining value firmly in mind, let’s see if other eyewear ingredients may actually be more gray than most eyecare professionals think.

SEEING THE GRAY IN OPTICS
Every ECP has heard the following: “It starts with the Rx,” meaning that the process of getting new glasses starts with getting an assessment of the refractive and binocular state of their eyes. From this information is derived the prescribed Rx, which, when done comprehensively, is actually a treatment plan created by the prescriber, carefully tailored for the individual visual needs of the wearer. In an ideal prescription, many factors, such as wearing history, personal sensitivity, planned utility, fear of dependency, etc., have been taken into account as the final Rx is written. Yet it is not uncommon to find the finished eyewear does not work out as expected. Sometimes the Rx has to be revisited, reassessed and even revised in order to deliver on the promised balance of acuity, comfort and utility. Other times, the lens choices made, including material, design and treatments, may contribute to wearer dissatisfaction. This is why it is often difficult to tease out the exact offender when investigating a pair of unsatisfactory eyewear. In recognition of this intrinsically gray nature in eyeglass prescriptions, let’s review a short list of “known unknowns” contained within the current Rx paradigm:
  1. Does the Rx represent the full infinity distance correction?
  2. Does the Rx represent the full near or near add correction?
  3. Have small amounts of cylinder error—0.50D or less—been overlooked or intentionally left off the Rx to improve perceptual comfort?
  4. Have the cylinder axes been orthogonalized, i.e., changed to 90 or 180 in an effort to improve perceptual comfort?
  5. Has the add power been subjectively determined or simply tracked to age?
  6. Has the Rx been tested or trial-framed outside of the exam room?
  7. Does an Rx comment of “no change” mean no intended change or no change found?
  8. Does the absence of any prism notation on the Rx mean no phorias are present?
  9. In an age of advanced freeform lens technology choices, what exactly is meant by the Rx comment “match base curve”?
  10. When only a change in one eye is being prescribed, what exactly does a “no change” comment in the companion eye mean? Does it mean no change from the last Rx on record or no change tied to a specific pair of eyewear?
Seen from the Rx filler’s perspective, it should be clear that the “optics” of the prescriber’s intention in any Rx are, at best, shrouded in gray.

SEEING THE GRAY IN MEASURING AND MAKING
Opticians have always prided themselves on the precision and accuracy they bring to every pair of prescription eyewear. In years past, this meant a high level of skill with pen and ruler. Today, with advancing technology for measuring and making eyewear now commonplace, the advent of one hundredth of a diopter Rx precision and one tenth of a millimeter fabrication placement suggests that eyewear could be reaching a pinnacle of perfection in its over 700-year history.

But ever finer fabrication precision does not fully correlate well with increasing satisfaction in either the process of determining the Rx or the manner in which eyewear is fitted and worn. For example, gravity and perspiration conspire to let glasses slip down. Along with both personal posture and activity, these factors can directly affect the intended vertical placement of the lenses. In the horizontal realm, much expectation has been placed on the importance of ever finer precision in taking monocular PDs because of its impact on optimizing progressive corridor placement. Yet as Thomas Clark, OD, has pointed out in his patent for a new type of pupillometer, measuring the eye’s PD objectively fails to account for variations in angle kappa and therefore directly affects the location of the subjective visual axis, which is where the eyes are actually looking. Clark further points out that eye dominance plays a far greater role in progressive satisfaction than has been previously realized. He theorizes that the wearer’s dominant eye will naturally guide and align the head to where that lens’ progressive corridor lies, thereby shifting the total error in the binocular PD into the wearer’s companion eye. For example, a 1-mm error in monocular PD for each eye—the current ANSI tolerance applicable here—will effectively be seen by the wearer as a 2-mm error in the companion eye. This means that ideal corridor alignment is more reliant on achieving an accurate, subjective binocular PD than being overly concerned with the promise of improved precision using frame-based PDs. Even if the dominant eye’s progressive corridor is not ideally aligned in the traditional sense—to where the nose is pointing—a small amount of head turn is all that’s necessary to realize optimal progressive utility. This minor adjustment in head cape easily becomes part of the wearer’s general adaptation to their new pair of glasses.

So instead of spending time, money and encountering delays living up to tolerances that may not relate to the real optical life of a glasses wearer, try embracing more of the gray area that surrounds the measuring and making of all eyewear and use it to guide you toward improved customer satisfaction and greater perceived value.

EMBRACING THE GRAY FOR THE BETTER GOOD
There are gray areas in all aspects of business. But the one that concerns most retailers is customer satisfaction. Good customer satisfaction scores are gold and are a reliable predictor of repeat business. In most brick-and-mortar businesses, part of the customer satisfaction index is the metric of returns, which today average between 8 and 9 percent. For online businesses, that number effectively doubles to near 20 percent. In both channels, the nature of the business’ return policy can impact the timeliness and volume of returns, with longer time frames, liberal procedures and free return shipping encouraging shoppers to return. When satisfaction surveys are reviewed, they reveal that most customers will check off “didn’t fit” or “didn’t like” as reasons for their return. In optical, we might add “can’t see right” as another reason for return. Whether online or main street store, reducing returns not only goes directly to boosting the bottom line, it also correlates with good customer service and superior satisfaction scores.

But nobody’s perfect. No store, no product, no salesperson, no customer and certainly no doctor can expect their best efforts will always result in perfect customer satisfaction. Perhaps it’s time then for optical businesses to embrace the gray area in returns and repurpose it to increase customer satisfaction, loyalty and repeat business. This could manifest itself in allowing longer time frames for Rx rechecks or larger windows of opportunity for frame re-stylings. Use your imagination. Be inventive. Stretch the envelope. Mostly, try not to make your quest for perfect eyewear the enemy of making it good enough. And remember, all value approximations are, at their core, individual perspectives on what’s good enough in the eye of the beholder.

WHAT CONVINCES CUSTOMERS TO BUY?

According to an article on ShopifyPlus, developing a relationship between buyer and business is the foundation toward making a sale, facilitating repeat business and increasing customer loyalty. The ability to touch, whether person to person or person to object, stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that enhances feelings of trust and attachment and reduces stress. Touch helps increase the likelihood a relationship will form between buyer and seller, and that a subsequent sale will be made:

1. TOUCHING YOUR CUSTOMER—Potential buyers respond in a positive manner to appropriate person-to-person contact. For brick-and-mortar opticals, this is the best news ever! For online opticals, contact via social media and email is the next best surrogate. Yet frequency of contact is also important, and the typical eyewear purchase cycle, based on prescription need, works against Main Street opticals here. Can you think of undiscovered ways to “touch” your customer that might have the same impact as physical touch?

2. THE CUSTOMER CAN TOUCH THE PRODUCT—The ability to directly handle merchandise allows people to feel its “surface impact,” which helps them assess how hard/soft, heavy/light or rough/smooth it is. This tactile input correlates to the likelihood a purchase will be made.

Although many ECPs point out that prescription eyewear is a custom-made product and therefore closer in principle to tailored apparel, which are not generally returnable. However, the clear disappointment on display when eyewear clients return because they are unhappy with “whatever” is not a situation to treat in a cavalier fashion. (In my store, pledged to concierge-level customer satisfaction, this “whatever” totals 15 to 17 percent of transactions.) In the end, if you have built a trustful relationship, you’ll hear your customers declare “I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.” Remember when you encounter that to thank them and realize that your business has finally arrived as its own brand. .

—BS


Contributing editor Barry Santini is a New York State licensed optician based in Seaford, N.Y.