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Online sales are a real eye-opener

Optometry has been on a journey since the mid-1990s. The need to consult a qualified professional before making a purchase is stronger in this area of retail than most others – conventional wisdom says you don’t need specialist advice to buy a CD. Nevertheless, a growing number of services are now available online that were once only accessible on the high street.

“Traditionally, opticians practices were a consumer one-stop-shop that provided advice, prescribed people glasses and contact lenses, sold eyecare products and provided aftercare,” says Mitesh Patel, founder of Lenstore, an online contact lens retailer. “However, the arrival of the internet had a massive impact on the way consumers research and buy, with more people buying online and using health portals for information.”

Online retailers, typified by the likes of UK success story Glasses Direct, caused, and then benefited from, an enduring boom in optical etail and, for a brief period a few years ago, it looked like smaller independent businesses would threaten established behemoths, such as Specsavers, Vision Express and Boots Opticians.

The reality, of course, is that these great steam ships gradually changed tack, created new dimensions and useful services in their online presences, and generally adjusted to the needs of people who prefer to browse for glasses and lenses in the virtual world.

One potentially troubling development, deriving from the popularity of online, is the growing number of consumers who are making snap decisions about what to buy without investigating their needs properly

Again, unlike in other parts of retail, the drive online has not taken big chunks out of the industry leaders. Specsavers, for example, has just posted an 11.6 per cent increase in customers and a 6.9 per cent increase in sales year-on-year. It sold 13 million frames and 340 million contact lenses in 2012-13, contributing to a whopping £1.8-billion turnover.

The litany of big-name collapses from Woolworths to HMV, via Habitat and Jessops, are not reflected so sharply in the experience of high street opticians, and numbers have remained broadly stable.

In 2012, it’s estimated that around 300 independent opticians went bust, but this fact owes more to the competitive muscle of the industry’s big multiples than a shift in buying behaviour to ecommerce from Saturday afternoon shopping sprees.

But one potentially troubling development for the industry, deriving from the popularity of online, is the growing number of consumers who are making snap decisions about what to buy without investigating their needs properly.

Pressure to deliver services online means businesses have developed virtual eye tests that you can take in five minutes. They’re everywhere, but according to the experts – and, to be fair, the businesses themselves – these are no supplement for a professional “in-house” consultation.

“It’s absolutely essential that regular eye examinations are part of everyone’s healthcare routine; adults should see their optometrist for a check-up at least every two years,” says Clara Eaglen at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

She adds: “These examinations do not just check whether someone needs glasses, they can detect other eye conditions which may cause future sight loss. Online eye healthcare advice can never replace this face-to-face examination by a professional and shouldn’t be considered as an alternative.”

Self-diagnosis is a growing problem for people with sight issues, as picking the wrong solution could augment their problem. Yet, in some cases, self-diagnosis is encouraged to a greater or lesser degree by the retailers, according to Mitesh Patel at Lenstore.

“Some online retailers recommend alternatives to the contact lenses prescribed by opticians,” he says. “This is unsafe as consumers should wear the lenses they are prescribed. An over-reliance on health portals could also lead to consumers receiving the wrong information and forming misconceptions.

“The ability to access information online quickly is a big benefit to consumers. Finding a video on how to insert contact lenses or learning about the do’s and don’ts of proper eye health is easy, although it is not a replacement for an optician’s professional advice.

“The internet will not render high street retailers completely useless. Consumers will research and purchase eyecare products online, but they will still visit the high street for prescriptions and check-ups,” he adds.

People will always need glasses and, although the way we buy them is changing, there’s no replacement for a good old-fashioned, face-to-face consultation. As with the rest of the retail sector, online, m-commerce and multi-channel retail is becoming more sophisticated, but reliable self-diagnoses is some way off yet.