When online eyewear retailing was launched about eight years ago by companies such as FramesDirect.com and ZenniOptical.com, traditional brick-and-mortar optical retailers went into a tailspin trying to assess the potential impact of this new mode of eyewear selection, sales and delivery. Over the years, dozens of companies have launched similar websites, but after all this time, the percentage of eyewear sales, both plano and Rx, has been very low, just below 4%, according to the latest numbers from The Vision Council.
I believe that eyewear consumers appreciate and enjoy the “hands-on” experience they receive by visiting an eyecare professional’s office and that most will opt for that experience over that of an Internet retailer. What can shift this paradigm substantially is if consumers are not free to make that decision. What if managed vision care companies develop programs so large that portions of their subscribers obtain eyewear online? With nearly 75% of eyewear sales somehow touched by managed vision care plans, that could be a game changer.
Approximately one year ago, VSP launched Eyeconic.com for VSP subscribers to buy eyeglasses online. This means that their VSP doctor loses the opportunity to sell that patient eyeglasses and the profit on that sale. VSP will provide that doctor a dispensing fee for checking and adjusting the eyewear, but that fee is substantially lower than the doctor’s office would realize.
What if other managed vision care providers do the same thing? What if they heavily incentivize eyewear purchased online? What if a managed vision care company sells a 2,000-employee company a vision plan that only allows their workers to obtain eyeglasses online? What if state’s social assistance programs decide they can save money by requiring their recipients to buy eyeglasses through an online channel?
The potential risk to brick-and-mortar retailers from online eyeglass sellers at this point isn’t derived from the consumer; it originates with companies and policies that may restrict the consumer’s choices. We’ve already seen restricted choices from managed vision care companies mandating optical retailers to use their lab services. The reaction from the ECP community was legislation in state houses around the country to countermand this.
Will eyewear buyers be forced to buy online? It remains to be seen.
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