By Roger Mummert
ROB Content Director
July 10, 2019
ODs face competition from online retailers who operate on a whole other ethical level–a lower one.
If you’re explaining, you’re losing.
This is an age-old axiom of politics. Classic example: “I spent the last five days crying in Argentina” said South Carolina governor Mark Sanford to explain being AWOL from the state and his wife. Former governor, that is.
But lately, explaining and losing has an application in optical: ODs are compelled to explain to patients why a comprehensive eye exam is vital to their eye health and safety. After 125 years of ODs giving eye exams.
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What’s driving this “explanation epidemic” is a barrage of messages, many of them from value-based online retailers, that eye doctors are ripping you off in a self-serving attempt to control their cash-cow, namely sales of overpriced eyewear and contact lenses. Further, these value-based online retailers portray themselves as consumer friends and advocates.
This situation is especially acute for ODs who specialize in contact lenses. The current marketing campaign of 1-800 Contacts encourages consumers to “Skip the trip to the doctor’s office…Renew your current prescription for free.”
If you haven’t seen it, check it out.
Jeffrey Sonsino, OD, who practices at Optique in Nashville, laid out the problem, and one promising response, in a highly enlightening lecture at AOA Optometry’s Meeting in June, “Practicing in the Age of Disruption: How Good Doctors Can Deal with Bad Companies.
Dr. Sonsino calls on colleagues to support optometry’s legal challenges to this anti-doctor stance of online retailers. And he has gone a step further. He is a founder of EYERUS, a soon-to-be-launched referral service that matches consumers looking for an eye exam, including one needed to renew their contact lens supply, with a nearby OD who has an available exam time or cancellation today or tomorrow. The OD’s cost is $20 when a consumer hits their exam chair, zero dollars if they don’t show.
The Uber/Lyft concept comes to optical. Brilliant.
But the world never stands still, and the internet facilitates falsehoods that go viral. Consider the recent videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that were doctored to make her appear drunk.
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Adam Mosseri, the head of Facebook’s Instagram, told CBS’s Gail King that they need constant vigilance to counter the forces that game their ever-changing system. “They’re very good!” he emphasized. “It’s a continuous battle.”
In short, ODs face a harsh reality: They work in a business environment with online competitors who operate on a whole other ethical level–a lower one. Said another way, if ODs acted in the same manner as some of the online retailers who compete with them, they readily could lose their license or, at the very least, the trust of their patients.
And a patient’s trust in their doctor is an essential and powerful differentiator.
A New Nomenclature of Deception
To fully understand how skewed the playing field has become, look at the changing nomenclature of deception.
Years ago, a retailer who lies to make a sale was called a “crook.” Witness Dan Aykroyd’s character Irwin Mainway on Saturday Night Live, marketing a “Bag’O’Glass” as a toy for kids: “Hey, you know. It’s $9.99. What do you want, it’s for kids.” We got the joke, and we all agreed that Irwin was an oily, mustachioed sleazebag.
But today, that consensus would be less certain.
In the online retail world, someone who bends the rules of honesty is called a “bad actor.” They could be a decent person, this suggests, they’re just exhibiting “dark patterns.”
Let’s look at some dark patterns:
Internet shopping is rife with counterfeit, branded products. The New York Times recently reported that Amazon, which sells half the books sold in America, is a conduit (through its vast network of private sellers) for countless counterfeit books. High-ticket medical books are a frequent target. The reporter purchased 34 copies of one such guide at Amazon and other online sellers and found that 30 of them were counterfeit.
Online retailers of used fashion items–luxury items, in particular–have sprung up. A number of them (TheRealReal is a leading one) employ experts who certify the legitimacy of a second-hand Chanel bag or Patek Philippe watch, differentiating them from a sea of fakes.
Old Technology Contact Lenses
Reports now surface of counterfeit contact lenses–branded as top-selling products–from offshore retailers, mostly from Asia. Not to mention that contact-lens vendors are emerging with old technology from off-patent contact-lens materials. Once patents expire, the formulas for old materials are found in the public record and materials can be duplicated or reverse engineered. So contact-lens materials 20 years out of date are marketed as a “consumer bargain.” Worse, the early silicone hydrogel materials soon come off patent. No doubt, a low-baller will premier a 2000-era material and tout it as “the latest and best for less.”
Search Engine Identity Thieves
A recent news item: An elderly woman had her garage door stuck halfway up. She Googled a local vendor, who jacked her for $750 for shoddy work. Turns out, he was a fraud: He has subverted Google Search to appear as the legitimate, rent- and tax-paying local vendor that the woman thought she was contacting. Now, legitimate garage door services build their marketing campaigns around avoiding garage door scams.
You may notice that, when you conduct a Google search, you increasingly are connected to something other than your intended subject–often to the opposite of it. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, a marketing consultant describes how for a few hundred dollars you can launch what’s called a “redirect search” campaign and capture (and potentially manipulate) the attention of many consumers. This can be used for good (e.g., redirecting a suicidal inquiry to a suicide help line), but imagine how evil-doers can glom onto this, as well.
Fashion sales are fueled by “influencers” with hundreds of thousands of digital followers who buy products they recommend. However, there is no semblance of objectivity or a selective eye, even. Influencers are paid upwards of $10,000 for a series of Tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts that follow the parameters of the message assigned to them by the designer/manufacturer.
Recently, the influencer Lil Miquela, who has a million followers, was revealed to not even be human. She was created through CGI. Post-reveal, she’s still effective, part of a new category and new word: Brandfluencatars, combining brand, influence and avatar.
You can’t make this stuff up.
A host of companies market by “consumer advocacy.” Dollar Shave Club was in it early on with: “Stop paying for shave tech you don’t need!” They marketed quality product with convenience and low cost–and an implication that you’re a fool to pay retail. Plus, we’re cool, buy from us.
Warby Parker took that up a notch, claiming that a monopoly fixes high prices. They put a cherry on top with a “Buy a pair, give a pair” program. Further, they claim that they offer consumer-friendly pricing because they design and manufacture their own product. As co-founder David Gilboa told CBS News: “…we realized we could cut out all the middlemen, all the unnecessary markups and… design the product that we would love and want to wear and sell them directly to consumers for $95.”
Raise your hand if you think Warby Parker can make frames cheaper than China, where cost of goods is reportedly as low as $3-7 per frame and not much more for lenses. Keep your hand up if you think their margins are smaller than those of the companies they portray as price gougers.
An inquiring consumer might ask, why is Zenni Optical selling frames as low as $6.95? OK, more like $25, when you get to their premium line?
I could go on, but enough, already!
What does this add up to: a series of fibs, half-truths and whoppers that, to me, smell like deception and hypocrisy. But that is the playing field on which optometrists find themselves.
So back to, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
That’s the way it may feel, but the course is clear: Keep explaining!
Keep explaining to your patients that you are their advocate (and a highly educated and experienced professional advocate) for their healthy eyes and unsurpassed quality of vision.
Keep explaining that, to be that advocate, you walk the walk: You prescribe to patients the best performing and most innovative technology. Not outmoded, inferior product that saves them a few bucks or that allows you higher margins.
Keep explaining that you are not a buddy offering a smart-buying tip; you are their doctor, evaluating their eye health, prescribing a medical device and improving their lives.
In the end, you will retain the patients who perceive value in their experience with your practice and who cherish the trust they feel in their doctor/patient relationship.
And those are the patients you want.
Roger Mummert is Content Director for Review of Optometric Business. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org