To the uninitiated businessperson, optical is often thought of as a license to print money. If you think about it, you can understand why: great demographics, an aging patient population that will continue to need the most expensive vision correction products for years to come, strong profit margins, and a relatively inexpensive labor pool. More so, as licensure to dispense eyeglasses is only required in about 45% of the U.S., it’s an easy field to enter.
So it isn’t surprising that anyone with an idea and some investment money can seize opportunities to disrupt the optical status quo.
Over the years, different retail models have come to prominence, but they usually hit a plateau. First, there were the conventional retail chains and optical departments in drugstores. They were followed by the glasses-in-an-hour craze and then the Big Box optical departments. They’ve all hung around (with the exception of drugstores, although they may be back) and merged into the optical landscape. None of these models overtook the conventional single-store or single-practice model.
In recent years, these other models have been overshadowed by online retailing, which first began as a very low-end distribution system. Even glasses in an hour couldn’t compete with glasses for $29. As this category has matured, both the product and the proposition became more sophisticated. Today, Warby Parker, the online wunderkind, sells house-designed, single-vision eyewear for $95 per pair. And Warby has been able to command a very high profile, which contributed to its raising more than $100 million in investment funding.
All these alternative optical delivery systems have one thing in common-they see the conventional optical industry as highly vulnerable and virtually defenseless. It was Warby that posited the idea that glasses were overpriced and sold by people who made way too much money, while it could offer the consumer the same product for far less.
This idea was, as they say, sticky, and haunts our industry to this day because nobody has been able to answer the question, “Why are glasses so expensive?” to the satisfaction of the consumer. Of course, the answer is that quality eyewear carries a great deal of value, but no one seems to use that explanation.
What Warby hath wrought needs to be overturned, but that won’t happen until the industry at large makes the value case in a loud voice. Until then, optical simply remains vulnerable and undefended, like low-hanging fruit.
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