It seems a lifetime ago I was making appointments for MIDO and then for Vision Expo West, expecting to travel to Milan and New York City to see my friends, my colleagues, and all the wonderful new and exciting eyewear, lenses, machines, and processes that make the optical industry such a joy and wonder to be a part of. Then the unthinkable happened. A pandemic the likes of which the world hadn’t seen in over a century, spread around the world in weeks, interrupting everything we take for granted, all of our daily routines, all of our plans, and all of our goals for the year.
Most of America shut down, retreated, into our homes, shutting down our businesses, and rarely venturing out for anything more than groceries. Almost 3 months have gone by. Many an optometrist, many an optician, many a lab technician, many a sales representative, wanted to get out and continue with life and do what they could to feed their family but were prohibited by executive orders in their respective states from being able to go to work.
So too have many a shoe salesperson, realtor, bookkeeper, waitress, bartender, programmer, teacher, camp counselor, cook, flight attendant, reservation agent, construction worker, driver, appliance salesperson, pipefitter, woodworker, and dentist, while 100,000 of our fellow Americans have perished from this insidious virus. The list of course could go on for pages.
Here we are, emerging from our corona cocoons, hopefully safe, hopefully healthy, all ready to work again and get on with our lives in this new normal. We all hope for a quick cure, a safe and effective vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus. Hopefully, one will be found soon. Notwithstanding the fact that after nearly 40 years and billions of dollars spent, no vaccine for the HIV/AIDS virus has yet been found, not to mention a vaccine against the common cold that has afflicted us all since time began. Even if we are lucky and a vaccine is found relatively soon, how many Americans will be able to afford to get the vaccine? Even if cost were no object, how many Americans will willingly get the vaccine? What about the rest of the world?
We are reopening and restarting. However, life isn’t the same as it was just a few short months ago. We live in a very different world. Over 40 million Americans, including many of our readers, have lost their jobs. Many more have been furloughed or been put on reduced hours. How long before most of these people find jobs again? How many offices, how many businesses, how many stores, how many restaurants will never open their doors again?
Already Pier 1 Imports has announced their intention to close all of their 541 stores. J.C. Penney has announced its intention to close 242 of its stores. Papyrus is closing its 254 stores. Modell’s is liquidating their 153 stores. Neiman Marcus has filed for bankruptcy. Even the parent company of TLC Laser Centers has filed for chapter 11. The list goes on and on. It’s estimated that over 100,000 small businesses have closed as a result of the coronavirus fallout, according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago. How many restaurants, most of whom have been closed since early March, will survive not just 3 months of virtually no business, but an uncertain term of having to do business at 25% or 50% social distancing capacity? These are your friends, your neighbors, your customers, your patients.
We are wearing masks. At least we should be, when in public. We are social distancing, or again, should be. People are still afraid, and rightfully so. Will their job be the next one cut? Will their next grocery shopping trip or stop at a restaurant take-out expose them to the coronavirus? Will their child come home from daycare or school and share whatever germs or viruses they were exposed to with the rest of the family? Will they even find daycare to be able to go back to work?
We should all be looking well beyond just reopening and restarting. We need to relook at every aspect of our lives and our businesses. This is a time to rethink, refresh, and renew.
We will not be going back to life as normal anytime soon. Even if the coronavirus dies out of its own accord, it will be a year or two from now. The Spanish Flu of 1918 lasted well into 1919. Over 500 million people were infected around the world, with a death toll of over 50 million. The first wave hit in late spring of 1918, calming down through August and September, The second wave from October through December, was 5 times as deadly as the first wave. Even the third and final wave in February through March of 2019 was still more than 3 times as deadly as the first wave in 1918.
What processes will you and your store and practice put in place, not just to keep yourself, your staff, your patients, and your customers safe, but to do business in the new normal?
Will you embrace e-commerce?
Will you embrace virtual try-on technology to allow your patients and customers to pre-shop?
Will you embrace telemedicine and do more exam work via the internet?
Will you rearrange your store to make create more open space to social distance better?
Will you create sanitization stations where customers can put frames they try on? Will you even let customers try on frames anymore without assistance?
Will you install UVC light stations?
Will you install HEPA air filtering?
Will you install eyewear sanitation stations to bring in new customers?
Will you change your store hours?
Will you change your marketing?
Will you edge in-house?
Will you put your contact lens sales online through your distributor?
Will you change your demographic or psychographic targeting?
Will you offer virtual stylings and consultations?
Will you offer personal shopping services?
Will you streamline and make curbside pickups permanent?
Will you bring in other products or accessories to add to your inventory to increase sales?
There are as many options are there are stars in the sky. The second half of 2020 will be radically different from the first half of 2020. The second half of 2020 will be markedly different than the 2nd half of 2019, or any year most every one of us has lived through.
The experiential shopping experience so many of us love elsewhere and were striving to try and achieve in our own stores will no longer be the draw they were just a few short months ago. In 2019 we wanted people to spend more time in our stores, lingering, looking at everything we had to offer. We wanted to offer coffee, tea, even adult beverages, to make shopping for eyewear an experience worth sharing with their friends and neighbors.
Today, people want to get in and get out as fast as they can. Trunk shows, once the symbol of a wonderful event day or evening at an optical shop, will need to be put on hold for the foreseeable future. Artist cocktail parties, neighborhood art walks, and retail block parties will not be a reason for most anyone to want to venture out.
In point of fact, events like this might do more reputational harm over the next several months than good. Neither shops nor shoppers want crowds of people today. To think any of us will be doing the same thing we did before COVID-19 with the same results we saw before the coronavirus is an exercise in futility and fantasy. The new normal is safety. The new normal is quick convenience. The new normal is reliable privacy and intimacy. The new normal is a safe buffer zone around us all. Your patients and your customers want to know you care about more than just their vision and their credit card. They want to know you value their safety, their overall health, their real and/or perceived exposure to COVID-19, in short, their welfare. Empathy will be the key to making and keeping customers for the remainder of 2020. How we deal with these unwanted changes in our world will define the difference between business success and failure.
Don’t just reopen, rediscover the reason you went into business in the first place. Rethink your place in the market and where you want to be a year from now. This is the time to refresh your store, your practice, your brand. This is the time to renew your energy, your enthusiasm, and your reason to serve your patients and customers. Reinvent yourself and your business and you stand a very good chance of being one of those will make not only a difference in the lives of your staff, patients, and coworkers but in your community as well.