Chances are you don’t think of your opticians as a luxury nor are they likely to think that way of themselves. However, the way our economy and shopping habits are shifting, that’s a problem, because even in the midst of a pandemic, human experiences are more critical to the success of your optical business than ever before. I’ll explain why.
Digital vs. Human
As our lives become increasingly digital and the cost of devices and software development continues to drop, anything that can be done digitally can be done cheaper than in person. While it used to be true that digital devices were mostly for those with disposable income, the scales have long-since tipped. Now, not only do the poor have access to screens, but the rich are opting to spend less time on them. Fearing that time on screens is distracting, unhealthy, and unproductive, the rich have been trending away from social networks, delegating email to assistants, and choosing nearly screen-free education for their kids. As a consequence, human experiences are the new luxury. A full year into the pandemic, this is more true now than ever.
During the past few years, BC (Before COVID), retailers started waking up to the trend, trying to bring more human interaction and experiences to the table, in an attempt to bring people back to stores and malls. But, two things became clear: Human interaction and experiences are more expensive to deliver and many consumers (i.e. the masses) just aren’t that interested in in-person retail experiences anymore. They prefer the comfort, convenience, and familiarity of their screens and couches. Mall owners discovered that even big experiential retailers like Apple, Tesla, and Eataly weren’t enough to lure the shoppers they need to sustain what has always been a mass-market shopping venue.
So, not only does it seem that the brick and mortar retail market is shrinking as the incomes of those willing to participate skew higher, but even a portion of that market remains tied to the comfort of their screens. The bottom line is that as an independent optical retailer, you can no longer afford to try to appeal to everyone (not that it was ever a good idea).
The challenge then is not just moving upscale or providing an attractive-enough alternative to the digital world, but doing so in a decidedly smaller market, all while remaining profitable—a tall order to be sure. But maybe not as impossible as it seems.
Then COVID came along and complicated things even further. On the other side of the pandemic, there’s likely to be an increase in demand for in-person retail experiences and a decrease in supply as many of the businesses that relied heavily on face-to-face customer experiences are simply not around anymore. There’s an opportunity there if you are ready for it.
Savvy optical retailers have adapted to pandemic life by switching to appointment-only models accompanied by a higher-touch, more personal, or “luxury” experiences. Some have found success with the model and intend to stick with it. These businesses could very well find themselves in the enviable position of being able to substantially raise prices post-pandemic thanks to their new positioning and increased demand.
But, let’s face it, the experience that most independent optical retailers deliver is horrible. These opticals have put themselves in the position of trying to sell a bad experience to people that don’t want an experience at all. It’s clear that all that has kept most of the industry from falling off a cliff, like so many other industries the internet has pushed into the abyss, are the barriers of the “prescription” and the custom/technical nature of lenses and frame selection. In other words, luckily for most, the way we do business in optical requires unwilling consumers to participate even when they really don’t want to. Fortunately or unfortunately we’re seeing that both barriers are showing signs of fatigue and are likely to crumble before we know it, giving way to more digital options.
The current state of bad customer experiences in optical can be blamed largely on how opticians (and eyewear sales) are positioned in our industry. Practice owners and even the opticians themselves see their roles as little more than skilled prescription-fillers as they look to optimize “handoffs” from the doc, hoping to “capture” patients to sell them their necessary medical device on their way out the door. This approach worked once upon a time when there were few alternatives. Today, we know full well consumers can buy their eyeglasses cheaper and with less hassle somewhere else. That’s not to say there’s no value in what brick and mortar opticals provide (even though in far-too-many cases, there’s clearly not), but we need to wake up and realize a different approach is long overdue.
This is no knock on opticians, rather the industry that created the way we do business, but when you stop and think about it, it’s really no wonder opticians are paid so little. There is so much potential value left on the table in the name of, “this is how we do things.” and so much resistance to change.
“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”
–John C. Maxwell
The human-heavy nature of the optical business should put us in a good position to take advantage of these experiential retail trends if—big IF here—we’re willing to [quickly] change our beliefs about what the role of an optician actually entails and of course, who we want our customers to be.
Enter “opticians as a consumer luxury.”
Side note: Luxury doesn’t necessarily have to be all about price. But, at least some portion of sales should be upscale to account for the higher cost of delivering a better experience.
So, what exactly does the optician as a “consumer luxury” mean in practice? Or rather, well-implemented practice? We’ve established that human interaction is a “luxury” and will become more so over time. Opticians are already in that position to interact with your customers, so it’s up to you to make the most of it. The details of the implementation depend on your vision, who your ideal customer is, and how they define luxury. But, whether it’s about price, scarcity, comfort, convenience, quality, experience, or status; at the end of the day, luxury is about desire.
And there is only so much desire you can generate in a doctor’s office. (Hey, this is a family show here.) People simply DO NOT enjoy going to the doctor. When was the last time you were with a group of friends looking for something to do and one of them suggested, “I know, let’s go see what’s new at Bob’s Family Optometry!”? (No offense, family practice owners.)
Your opticians and your optical business when positioned correctly can be the reason people come to you for no other reason than to buy eyeglasses—as-in: walk-in off the street, just to buy glasses—instead of an afterthought or something they try to avoid on the way out the door. Your opticians and your optical business when positioned correctly can draw people in as customers (i.e. shoppers) first…
…and then, be an additional source of new practice patients, instead of hoping it works the other way around, as you desperately try to keep them from taking their business online or to the local big box.
If you want to stop worrying about your competition, set yourself up to have no competition. If you want to stop worrying about patients walking out the door, think about how to start attracting them as customers. That means thinking about your eyewear and eyecare businesses differently and separately. It also means presenting these two parts of your business to the world separately, with different personas, different branding, signage, websites, and if possible even separate entrances. Sound ridiculous? Give it a minute.
The more automated our world becomes, the more humans will become the differentiator, but, as is the case with all luxuries, it only matters to the consumers that can afford it and the ones that care. You have to position your optical to find and attract people that care about what you have to offer, by caring about what they (your ideal customers) want—not what the masses want.
Let’s go back again to this idea of opticians as a consumer luxury and look at some common attributes of luxury to see how they can apply to your optical. You want opticians that can think about, help you with, or even lead the effort in these areas. FYI: An optician that can do this well is worth far more than $15/hr. Higher salary, profit sharing, or perhaps even a partnership arrangement could be in order because she could potentially bring in as much revenue, if not more, than the doc.
Luxury can’t feel as if it is available to everyone. The no-brainer here is to make sure your product lines cannot easily be found online or down the street. If you’re selling popular brands because “that’s what our patients want”, don’t be offended when your patients walk out the door knowing they can get it cheaper online.
In-office finishing, as ordinary as it may seem, is a great differentiator—almost a requirement in my book. It allows you to make things and deliver in a timeframe that just can’t be matched online.
Another point to mention here, related to scarcity, is the importance of finding and focusing on a niche. Luxury cannot be all things to all people. You won’t have devoted fans that are willing to evangelize your business unless you go all-in on a specific niche. One of the best ways to find your niche is to think about your ideal customers, think about your passions, and try to determine where they intersect.
Above all, make sure the human experience you offer is unique to you.
No concession should be made on quality (as defined by you and your ideal customer) which must be delivered consistently. To deliver this high level of quality, you (your opticians) must strive to become experts in what you deliver, your product offerings, and most importantly in your customers.
Excellence must begin with mastery of basics. Your opticians have to be well-trained and at the very least on the path to becoming masters of their craft. Don’t rely on licensing or certification as your benchmarks. As it stands today, neither has the ability to consistently produce/identify quality opticians. Remember, that’s why we created the Optician Qualification Standard at Laramy-K. It is designed to help you with this very issue.
Always provide everything you promise plus a little more.
Luxury feels bespoke even when it isn’t. Eyewear should feel specifically chosen, designed, and unique to each individual customer. Much of this depends on the opticians doing the human work of relating to the customer and selecting the lens/frame combination that was meant for no one else but them. Focusing on a niche helps in this regard. Of course, the prerequisite to be able to deliver a product at this level is excellence.
Luxury is as much about the experience as it is the product itself. As I mentioned before, this is where most opticals fall short—the waiting rooms, dated décor, opticians that treat their customers like patients. There’s nothing attractive about any of it. People hate going to the doctor. They don’t want to be a patient if they don’t have to be. Anything that reminds them of this is going to work against you in trying to create a destination—a place where people come to shop for eyewear for the experience of it.
When thinking about the experience you want to create, whether you are considering your furnishings, style, dress, music, signage, colors, smells, or packaging; it’s all about the details. Stories matter. Each of the above helps tell your story and that story must resonate with your ideal customer, your niche, your tribe, those who you want to serve. Think about how you want them to feel when they leave your store.
Another point to consider: there’s no reason the idea of customer experience design can’t apply to both the lane and the store equally (even if differently).
They say time is money, but in reality, time is more valuable than money. Money is a renewable resource, but time is finite and fleeting. Your customer or patient’s time is no less valuable than your own.
Bruce Lee said, Be like water. Good advice, to be sure, but I say, Be like lube, reduce friction.
Look at every step in your customer’s journey from before they walk into the store to weeks after the purchase. Find ways to reduce friction and not only make each step more efficient but make it more pleasurable. The goal is to make your customers feel that time spent is not time wasted.
None of this can be faked. To do any of it well, you and your opticians have to care about your tribe. Hone your ability and the ability of your staff to put yourself in their shoes and really understand what they want—not just in terms of their optical needs, but in terms of the experience, they desire. You should think about this carefully when choosing a niche if you haven’t done so already.
Perhaps the most important quality of luxury is what it says about your customer to her peers. This starts with the selection of your tribe, continues with the culture you help build within your community, and culminates in your offering that gives your customers status within their group. “People like us do things like this.” or as Mando says, “This is the way.”
I challenge you to think differently about your optician staff. As I said before, You can no longer afford to have opticians waiting outside the lane, hoping for a “capture.” You need people who care enough to build an experience around what you deliver. It may not be easy to find these people. You might have to train them or they might already be in your employ. Wherever they may be, once you find them they’ll be worth their weight in gold. Imagine the value in hiring an optician who is an influencer in your niche, or a craftsperson (optical or otherwise) that could make something unique for your fans, or an artist that could help design an environment catered to your tribe, or a social media maven that could build an online community of evangelists or someone that just has the ability to make everyone smile and feel better about the world. This is how you turn your customers and patients into fans. This is how you build a wildly successful independent optical. This is how you avoid falling into the abyss.