As Eyecare Professionals we have seen a number of technological changes affect our practices over the past several decades for both the good and the bad of our industry. I would say mostly for the good. Technology may be uncomfortable for many as it affects the standard conventions of the way things have always been done. There is no question however that technology has also brought an unprecedented level of new knowledge and opportunities as well as a much greater degree of sophistication to measurements in our health.
Those of you who know me, know I am far from a Luddite. I invite technology and while change is never easy, welcome most of the change technology has presented. In fact, I make a living from helping ECP’s embrace those changes for their benefit. So when I tell you that some technology hurts the independent ECP, I feel I have a well balanced track record to say so. So when I complain about online eyewear sales, the complaint has little to do with technology supplanting traditional face to face brick and mortar retailing.
I have complained for years about the growing number of eyeglass and sunglass manufacturers who have decided to compete with their customers by selling online. How can any manufacturer say with a straight face they want to be a partner with the very ECP they want undercut and sell directly around? Many of these companies insist ECPs maintain minimum levels of inventory and while selling only at MSRP, while using the power of their brand to threaten the very existence of those who pay to display their product. The end consumer is free to return something they don’t like after ordering it, while most ECP’s have to settle for a 2 for 1 or even 3 for 1 exchange program…if they are lucky.
In addition how well can a pair of any eyeglasses or sunglasses fit a consumer right out of the case? Would I be off base saying maybe 1 out of 40? 1 out of 50 times? For those purchasing prescription lenses, the ECP they choose to purchase through will adjust those frames for the consumer, but what will be the level of fit and service received when possibly half the purchase price was taken away from the ECP by the manufacturer selling direct?
Let’s take this argument away from the optical industry for a moment. Let’s say you have decided to purchase a new designer label suit. You can purchase the suit from any of a dozen high end clothing stores or you can purchase it direct from the designer. The price is exactly the same. Who do you think will better stand behind the suit’s quality? The designer of course. If something is wrong with the suit, the clothing store is going to have to send it back there anyway, so why not just eliminate the middle man and buy direct? Well, the same thing is happening in our business when manufacturers choose to sell direct to the public. Your shop may have an exemplary reputation for customer service, but every one of your customer will think twice when faced with this choice. It is inevitable you will lose some of your best customers to a manufacturer who sells direct.
In addition, many sunglass manufacturers treat the end consumers of their product better than their own customers, the ECPs who purchase their goods in mass quantities. A number of high end sunglass companies will repair or replace sunglasses damaged for any number of reasons, other than being used as lifts for parked cars, for a very nominal fee. A consumer buys sunglasses from you and when and if something goes wrong can get those sunglasses repaired or replaced for a fraction of the cost you would have to charge, even if you make no markup, direct from the manufacturer. How again is that a partnership?
I would hope each and every ECP think twice about dealing with manufacturers who sell direct to the public and pressure these designers to think twice about where their bread and butter comes from, you, the hundreds and thousands of ECP’s who stock their product year in and year out. I may not be much of a fan of VSP; however they got it right when they chose to do online ordering for eyeglasses. The frames purchased through eyeconic.com must be picked up at a member ECP. Simple right?
If upscale eyewear manufacturers want to be real partners to their ECP’s they would do the same, offering anyone wanting to purchase an eyeglass or sunglass frame free shipping to the ECP of their choice. That would be a partnership worth working on. If the consumer chooses to work around the ECP then perhaps the manufacturer should consider charging a slightly less than reasonable $40 shipping/handling charge to purchase direct and have it delivered outside the partner network. A consumer would lose the online sales tax advantage and be assured of a better fitting pair of eyeglasses in the process as well.