THE FRAGILE STATE OF OPTICIANRY

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OURS has always been an industry built on power struggles. Whether it’s labs battling direct sellers, ODs battling dispensing MDs, chains battling independents, or mass merchants battling just about everybody. And as consolidation, a flat marketplace, and new competition from online retailing and other entities come into play, the battles will continue for some time.

And there’s the optician. The optician was the one who had to deal with patients when they became customers; the one who made the glasses and dealt with complaints if patients weren’t happy (regardless of who in the delivery system had erred).

Opticians always depended upon the kindness of others. Not a source of Rx herself, the independent optician looked principally to ophthalmology for referrals and to a lesser extent optometry. She still does. But now that optometry is ensconced in materials dispensing, and ophthalmology has followed suit, the life of the optician has become more precarious. Many have opted to work for one or the other of these stakeholders; many have gone to work for retail chains.

There are those who braved it on their own—a stalwart group of arguably 8,500 (those owning their own businesses and operating independently of a vision care professional of another stripe). These folks do battle with everyone else on an everyday basis. What has kept them going is specialization—the fashion boutique model, the family practice model, etc.

Remarkably, opticians are only licensed, registered, or certified in 22 of 50 states. There may be as many as 70,000 operating today in the U.S. In states where there isn’t some form of licensure, they’re free to migrate from one profession to the other.

Clearly, we as an industry need to establish a standard, a bar for quality opticianry practice. The American Board of Opticianry certifies approximately 33,000 opticians beyond any state licensing distinctions. But if eye-wear consumers aren’t informed about the value of ABO certification then the value of those letters after the last name is lost.

As our industry has evolved, we’ve overlooked opticianry or simply taken it for granted. There will always be people to prop up in the front of the store—keep ‘em happy, but don’t pay ‘em too much. This thinking is fatal for our business. If we are to thrive, the optician (or someone like him) needs to be: 1) qualified and licensed; and 2) a true frontline professional who works with the customer in a productive and useful way.

Someone needs to become opti-cianry’s champion. In the meantime, we have emerging business management programs—like ORBA (Optical Retail Business Alliance)—to provide tools to opticians who own businesses. For opticians, the time is now.

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