By Melissa Arkin

The 20/20 edit team had a hunch and it turned out to be right on. We had a feeling reposting Andy Karp’s column, “For Online Rxs, Caveat Emptor” (June 2010) on the 2020&U blog would elicit some strong opinions from readers. After all, for better or for worse, the “Fourth O” (online consumer frame ordering), is becoming a real presence in the optical arena and more and more consumers are turning to the internet for their Rx purchasing needs. But 20/20 had never anticipated that the response to the issue of purchasing prescription eyewear on the internet would be so prolific and so varied, with over 50 comments between this posting and a follow-up blog entry regarding the frame ordering websites themselves.

The internet has made many things easier: You can order a pair of shoes (or say, five—why not, the shipping is free and so are the returns!) and have them on your feet the next day. Online movie sites have rendered video stores practically extinct with the easy (and often, cheaper) access to any movie of your choosing. Even the mundane task of composing a grocery list and schlepping to the store—well, there are sites for that and those groceries, too, will be at your door at your convenience.

But when it comes to ordering prescription eyewear on the internet, several red flags are raised for eyecare professionals. For one, unlike groceries and shoes, Rx eyewear falls into the category of a medical device—and there is more to the right “fit” than simply ordering a size eight and a half from Zappos. Many feel the lure of low costs online have proven to be an attractive alternative for consumers, one that diverts business away from physical dispensaries. But let the ECPs, in their own words, tell you. For the sake of anonymity, our readers are identified here as they signed off on their comments online.

Reader, Jon S., raises a question that seems to be at the crux of the online eyewear purchasing conundrum. “Some customers take an hour of the stylist’s time, ask for their PD measurement and then take their frame selection and Rx online,” he says. “What is the strategy for combating this?”

It turns out, ECPs have developed various strategies for counteracting the allure of web-based Rx purchasing. Some have found that the best route is limiting the type of services provided to customers who have indicated that they don’t plan on purchasing their eyewear in-house.

CJ, a board-certified optician, states, “I do not take PDs/OCs for online purchases. Patients need hand holding and education about the value of their sight and the correction needed.”

Then there’s P.M., a Mass.-based OD, who echoes CJ’s sentiments and will also refuse to provide certain services to those patients looking to take their prescription eyewear orders to the internet. “I will check the powers of their eyewear to see if they match the Rx written,” the optician asserts. “I tell customers that we provide services for the eyeglasses we make for our patients. I will not get involved with their decision to purchase online, this being involved with providing measurements. I don’t want to have that customer coming back to say my measurements are wrong and that’s why they can’t see.”

An ECP identified as “Chuck” has a plan for patients who express an interest in purchasing their eyewear online. He found an article (ironically, on the internet) addressing the services his practice will and will not provide and distributes a copy to anyone who fits the bill. The manifesto informs:

“You have a right to your eyeglass prescription and, as a patient, you will always be provided a copy. We hope you’ll want to buy glasses from our office and we believe we offer the best value available when you consider service, quality and price. We have some concern with the use of eyeglass vendors over the internet. Fitting eyeglasses properly involves precise measurements, unbiased advice and skillful adjustments of the frame and lenses. Since internet providers do not meet with you in person they can’t provide those services… We provide only two services for eyeglasses purchased outside of our office: PD or papillary distance and prescription verification…”

While a large number of those who responded to the blog entry were in favor of fighting the current online trend, some embraced the gravitation toward online avenues of retailing. Some took a “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” stance, while a few even decided to venture out and create their own websites geared toward the sale of Rx frames. (It’s interesting to note that the latter garnered a bit of controversy on the blog, viewed by some as having sold out or gone to the “other side.”)

Barry Santini, OD, while not in support of the shift to the internet, didn’t agree with the approach of denying customers service, either. “I continue to be surprised at the number of ECPs who state they ‘would not service (a previous client’s) eyewear if it was purchased on the internet.’ Or that they consider the customer who goes online as ‘lost’. Take a step back. It’s never about one sale. It’s about the annuity that comes from their patronage over time, whether they buy every pair from you or not. I, for one, will continue to gladly adjust/service online-purchased eyewear with the hopes that my communications about the services and skills we offer will take. If they don’t and a specific client repeatedly seeks free services, then I have a decision to make—for that one client.”

The contingent of ECPs creating their own websites to accommodate customers looking to buy online is made up of individuals like Penn Moody, OD. “I did some research and decided that online eyewear retailing is not going away and I had two choices—participate or not. I decided to participate. However, there were no websites designed with the practicing OD in mind so a friend of mine in the frame business and I decided to start our own.”

Although Moody doesn’t delve deeper into what his site entails, he does remark that though he has created this online business, he doesn’t view it as an adequate substitute for in-person service. “Nobody can replace what we do for our patients,” he says. “But not all patients want all that we provide. None of us can stop the flow of history. I don’t believe we can stop the selling of eyewear online. Wouldn’t it be better for us to have some influence and control over this delivery system than to bash it and those who use it?”

One posting that generated a lot of buzz was from someone who devised a website that actually involves ECPs in the process. Michael Nason explains his site, ZipEyewear: “The whole point of ZipEyewear is to foster a relationship, guiding customers from our site to participating ECPs, from site to store. This allows ECPs to compete with online eyewear retailers, without changing their businesses. Our mission is to make it very simple for ECPs to take control of their trade and to offer their services to local customers via an online market.”

The internet is omnipresent and we are increasingly entrusting our purchasing needs to cyberspace every day. Wherever eyecare professionals fall on the spectrum, adaptation in some way seems inevitable and as evidenced in the comments we received, ECPs are already figuring out their game plan, whether it’s a go-with-the-flow or against-the-grain approach. You can keep the conversation going by visiting our blog at ■