Tips to Optimize Your Bricks-and-Mortar Advantage Over Online Retail

By Ken Krivacic, OD, MBA

Feb. 13, 2019

Is retail dying? Last year chains such as Toys R Us, Radio Shack and others closed their doors. Is the same fate in store for us as optometrists? Is everyone going to get their vision exam online and then buy their glasses online?

I don’t see it that way, nor do many other retailers, and in particular, retailers that started online.

Online Retailers Are Opening Bricks-and-Mortar Stores
The retail landscape is changing. More and more online companies are opening physical stores. Traditional online retailers such as Amazon, Casper (an online mattress retailer), Untuckit and Boll & Branch have opened physical stores. And in the eyecare world, Warby Parker, which started in 2018 with 64 stores, committed to having nearly 100 bricks-and-mortar locations by the end of last year.

Warby Parker was founded in 2010 as an online-only retailer, and then opened its first store in New York in 2013 due to many of its customers wanting to have a place to try on frames. “We think the presentation by retail experts of ‘either online or offline’ is a false choice. It really is the intersection of the two…and we are trying to approach retail expansion in a very deliberate manner, where we are testing and learning,” Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal told CNBC.

Research Online, But Touch & See In-Person
Companies are discovering that there can be more success in expanding from online alone. “Online brands have embraced clicks-to-bricks,” says Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman’s retail division. “Shoppers love to touch, interact and try on in person, and malls are upping the ante by offering immersive experiences that are exciting and memorable.”

The customer, or in our case, the patient, can have a fuller customer service experience than they could ever get online with personalized service and the ability to try on merchandise, and work with their own optician, or style consultant.

Barry Enderwick, a marketing consultant, writer and speaker has an interesting take on the changes taking place. “Most old-school retailers created an online version of their physical store,” he writes. “They viewed their customer’s experience as transactional. To them, the customer either bought in-store or online. The focus was on getting them to spend more, and spend more often. To that end, many retailers pursued a discounting strategy. Unfortunately, that approach trains customers to not buy unless they get a discount. One need only look at Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy to see that once a company goes down the path of discounting it is almost impossible to get out.”

Are we as optometrists and owners trying to compete by offering discounted products? Is that how to compete with online sales? Perhaps there is a different way to compete. In explaining why online companies have gone physical, Enderwick says, “Different than transactional thinking, online companies sought to not only provide increased value before, during and after the transaction. They think in terms of customer experience, not just sales.”

Here are actions we can take to optimize our bricks-and-mortar advantage:

CREATE AN ATTRACTIVE PHYSICAL LOCATION. Make the optical inviting and a place a patient would want to try on a pair of glasses. If you haven’t done so in a while, invest in a designer to spruce up your optical.

INVEST IN HIRING & EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT. Think of your employees as investments rather than expenses. Hire right, train and give constant feedback. A great employee is one of your best tools to keep patients from shopping elsewhere. A patient is more likely to return if they have forged a bond not just with you, but with one, or more, of your employees, who always remembers them by name, and remembers the kind of eyewear styles they like.

OFFER TACTILE OPTICAL EXPERIENCE. Remember, most shoppers want to touch, feel, see and try-on. That is a huge advantage for us as a physical location. Avoid glass cases, and other inaccessible displays, that require the patient to ask for assistance to try on your frames and sunwear.

EDUCATE PATIENTS ON THE VALUE OF YOUR SERVICES. Inform patients that there is more to a pair of glasses than a frame and lenses. The optician is there to make sure the frame fits properly, to make sure the lenses look good in the frame (how does that +4.00 in a rimless frame bought online look?), to make sure everything is centered properly and progressives and segs are positioned properly.

CREATE AN EXPERIENCE FOR PATIENTS. Make sure the patients’ time in your office is an experience rather than a transaction. For example, that could mean greeting patients by name at the door, and providing personalized one-on-one service throughout the visit, so they feel like a guest in your home, rather than one of many being led from room to room, and then rushed out the door.

STUDY THE COMPETITION. Finally, retail today is a battle. It is changing all around us, not just in optometry. Those that survive will be those that are can adapt, and those that keep the customer, or in our case – the patient, first. As owners we should study our competition and learn from them. If it works for them, we can make it work for us.


Ken Krivacic, OD, MBA, owns Las Colinas Vision Center in Irving, Texas. To contact him:

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