E-Commerce Exposed: ECPs Speak Up on Experiences Selling Online

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NEW YORK—E-commerce is a concept once thought to be a concern of conglomerate, big box retailers and companies targeting tech-savvy audiences in a new generation of online shoppers.

Online retailing’s prevalence, however, has increased steadily over time. Not only a challenge to general merchandise, apparel and specialty retailers, within the eyewear space, e-commerce has been posing a unique challenge to independent eyecare practitioners and dispensers.

Within the past year or so, a small, but growing group of independent practitioners and dispensers are asking: is it time to incorporate e-tailing strategies into eyewear sales, or is it sufficient to continue “business as usual”?

VM talked to ECPs around the country and learned that in this rapidly-changing arena, many remain against it, but some are beginning to explore it.

Those independent ECPS who take the tack firmly and resolutely against the adoption of eyeglass e-commerce see it as a direct threat to their business or, in a more personal vein, as misaligned with their view of patient care.

“From an economic perspective, e-commerce is completely different than brick and mortar retail,” said Alex Russakovsky, OD, of Twin City Eye, a full-service optometric practice affiliated with Pearle Vision in Somerville, Mass. “It defeats the purpose of a store, and then we become our own competition. Unless you have an incredibly large volume of orders, it really doesn’t make sense economically for someone with a brick and mortar to sell glasses online.”

Julie Kubsch, optician and owner of Specs Around Town, an optical boutique in Bloomington, Ill., believes the problems facing ECPs considering e-commerce are the pricing of products, properly fitting patients and offering unique product and personal service.
 
On Carmel Family Eyecare's website, a link is provided to their optical store powered by MyOnlineOptical.

“The biggest problem with e-tailers is that people usually think it’s going to be cheaper because they find it on the internet,” said Kubsch, who primarily offers high-end, independent frame lines in her shop. “We are a small business that thrives on unique product and personal service. To get involved in e-commerce sales, I think you need to be all-in and sell a lot of volume to make it monetarily beneficial. Most collections we are involved with don’t [permit] online sales and we don’t want to jeopardize our relationship with them.”

Kubsch also takes issue with the impersonal nature of online sales and not being able to physically fit each patient. “To fill random requests of people we’ve never seen puts a whole different spin on it. A lot of sending, returning, time consuming busywork for the sale of a $300-$500 frame. Is it worth it?”

For many ECPs, it is. Respective approaches can be categorized by what e-commerce platform they are choosing, what products they are deciding to sell online as compared to what’s sold in their stores and what type of client base they are targeting by offering an online store, but whatever the setup, several optical store owners tell VM they are seeing success selling online.

Richard Edlow, OD, CEO of Katzen Eye Group based in Baltimore, Md., says his five locations had already delved into technological advancements, so it made sense to adopt e-commerce as a component of the group’s online approach.

“For us, it’s technology in general – our patients check in at a kiosk, a patient portal makes appointments and they’re paying their bills online,” Edlow told VM. After calculating the cost of making a contact lens order in-store versus what it would cost online, “it was a no brainer.”

Edlow’s practice works with MyEyeStore, an ECP-facing e-tail hosting platform that seamlessly integrates with a practice’s existing website. “We find it’s been a pleasure,” said Edlow. “It worked out well, it frees up staff for one-on-one customer service and that is basically our philosophy with any technology.”

Katzen is not yet offering Rx eyeglasses in their web store, but plans are being made for the advancement in the near future, according to Edlow. “Within a year, patients will be able to order Rx-able glasses online, but pick them up in the office,” he said, emphasizing his belief in continuing adjustments and fittings in-store. “To me, that’s the best service possible.”

Other practitioners, like Jessetta Cargus Nwagwu, OD of Cargus Eyecare in McCalla, Ala., are drawn to the appeal of an online store due to the capability to improve patient retention by offering frames online that are difficult to carry in-store. “We had a lot of patients coming in asking for designer frames, but the cost to carry those frames in office was too much. So, being able to offer them online was attractive and just made sense,” said Cargus.

 
  As a user of VSP's Eyeconic, Richard Bass, OD is able to promote his eStore with Eyeconic's offerings.
 
Cargus had previously attempted an online store, but failed—“It was too time consuming and I realized I needed the right software and lab situation to make life easier. So, I went online and researched turnkey online opticals.” When she found MyOnlineOptical, a web store hosting service provided by Essilor, Cargus confirmed with another user of the platform that it was right for her and moved forward with setting up Cargus Eyewear Online by Brookstone.

“I didn’t want to risk not having an online presence,” Cargus told VM. “With an increasing number of our patients taking their prescriptions and making online purchases, I think it is important for long-term survival. Also, creating multiple streams of incomes is just a smart business move.”

Cargus identified the speed of frame delivery to be a challenge at times, but said, overall, her patients have been satisfied and retention has improved with the access to frames she doesn’t carry in-store.

Another MyOnlineOptical user, William F. Billman, OD, PC of Carmel Family Eyecare in Carmel, Ind., says the biggest struggle has been advertising his e-store to outside clientele, but having products online that he can’t stock in store has been beneficial. “It’s paid for itself so far, but I would love to market it more,” said Billman. “MyOnlineOptical has been very supportive, and patients have been pleased with the return policy, the courtesy and the quality.”

For Robert Bass, OD, FAAO of Optometric Associates, P.C. in Manassas, Va., VSP Global’s Eyeconic platform and eStore options have allowed him to enter into the online equation without incurring the costs of hosting his own e-commerce store and has given his patients a way to order online when his office is closed.

“I’m a little guy in a one doctor office,” Bass told VM. “I could not afford to set up any of this myself, but it gave me a way to play and to point some patients online.

My eStore is there for patients who only want to purchase from me, and having my name on my eStore is important to those patients,” Bass said. “We do very little for patients who aren’t ours.”

A component he has found especially useful is Eyeconic’s virtual try-on (VTO) technology that he opted to use in his eStore. “I have had patients look online, do the virtual try-on and then come in to order glasses – that has probably happened more than them ordering online. It gave them a way to look at it, have their family look at it. They might have done that with someone else and I never would have seen them. That to me is the cool part,” he said.

Marcus McNeill, owner and optician at Seek Eye Care in Fayetteville, N.C. said VTO has been a “game changer” for his business, which offers 2,000 frames online compared to the 600 offered in his brick and mortar boutique.

McNeill believes having VTO and an e-tail store available to patients at home as well as in his office allows him to compete with larger players and communicates to customers that his store is on the forefront of patient care.

 
MyEyeStore clients like Vision Max are able to integrate an e-commerce store into their existing website.  
 
“I’ve noticed that many ECPs are afraid of technology,” McNeill said. “I embrace technology. I feel that it gives me an edge against big buck stores and other competitors in my city. The conveniences that are offered now, like facial recognition and try-on, for a patient to walk in and see that, they know you care about them and want to invest in them. I want to be able to offer them that ability to place the order from home, and when they come in, to pull up my website on a big screen TV to go through the products together and find what they need and what fits.”

>Convenience has proven to be a driving factor for many entering the e-commerce equation, both ECPs and patients. At Dakota Eye Care Associates in West St. Paul, Minn., a city outside Minneapolis, MyEyeStore has proven to be beneficial due to its ease of use and vast bank of products available for each practice to carry online that they perhaps are not carrying in-store.

“Our idea is that, if we can offer them this convenience, and they’re staying with us instead of going to another provider, that’s certainly an advantage,” said Tom Vogelpohl, OD, who works with three other doctors at the practice.

In their e-tailing store, which appears as a page within their own website, Dakota Eye Care Associates offers eyewear like sunglasses, readers and sports vision products, and expands into fashion accessories such as jewelry, handbags and watches, medically oriented accessories such as low vision aids, contact lens solutions and eye drops, and other products not available in the practice’s physical location.

“There is potential for incremental revenue for people finding sunglasses and contact lenses online. It’s a new source of revenue in the sense that they might not be making those purchases with us in the office,” said Vogelpohl, who carries some, but not all of the eyewear, lens and health and beauty accessories offered on his site. “We carry some of the products in the office, but not every one, and not quite as much of a variety.”

In simplest terms, the practice stepped onto the e-commerce scene to avoid falling behind. “We felt quite strongly it was an inevitability that we had to move this way, knowing full well it may not be profitable right away,” Vogelpohl told VM. “The way in which we’re working with it at this point in time is largely for our patients, although, interestingly, we’ve had numerous orders from different parts of the country.”

Timothy Planty, OD of Vision Max in Baytown, Texas, uses MyEyeStore to offer more products, serve different demographics appropriately and save staff time.

“I had delved into the possibility with adding my own web store for selling contact lenses to my patients because it saved staff time—we register all of our patients online, put all the contact lens information in and they can order up to an annual order, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year without interfering with our staff time,” Planty told VM.

Vision Max’s online offerings have proven so successful, in fact, that he now carries certain products in his brick and mortar location because of their success in the online store. “When trying to decide between an optical contact lens distributer versus MyEyeStore, the advantage was that with MyEyeStore, there are sunglasses, readers, jewelry, purses and a lot of other options to draw patients to buy and I get a cut of that, too.”

According to Planty, Vision Max made a concerted effort to make patients aware of their new online offerings with promotional materials like discount cards and posters, provided and customized by MyEyeStore at no extra cost to the practice, as well as on the practice’s Facebook page and an e-newsletter.

“We had a lot of patients asking for their prescription so they could go online and buy – now that doesn’t happen as much because they’re registered in the office. That’s where I learned that it wasn’t the price, it was the convenience. Price was not the motivating factor.”

ECP-enabled platforms are not the only options available, either – other practices may opt to use platforms that allow for more customization and control. Ann’s Eyewear Boutique in Twins Falls, Idaho, for example, used a popular e-commerce platform, Shopify, to set up their online store, which has been up and running for under two months, according to owner, Ann Braga. Braga enlisted one of her staff members, Jenna Harder, who serves as optician, lab manager and website designer at the boutique.

 
  Ann's Eyewear Boutique used Shopify to build their e-commerce store to maintain control and customization of the website's appearance and functionality.
 

Another staff member, Mindy Frodin, “director of first impressions” and social media director, provides the images of frames sold in the e-store which she takes in a shadow box in-store.

“Mindy takes pictures of all the frames – we were already doing that – and we experimented with different views of how to present each product,” said Harder, who emphasized the desire for cohesiveness not only with the images, but with each page of the website. “We like to have full control over everything so we can make it look just right,” said Harder.

According to Harder, it took research, trial and error and consultations with other stores to achieve the ideal e-commerce balance. “A lot of online stores seem to be focused on bargains, so we wanted to make sure there was a place for us online,” she said.

Since the boutique’s e-com launch in late January, orders have come in from people and places around the country, and even around the world. Additionally, the website has consistently achieved nearly twice as many visits since it began showcasing and selling the store’s products.

“Having an online store is something we’ve been thinking about for several years. It was easy to put in place, and hits have been good every day,” said Braga. “We’ll see what it adds up to.”