High Friction and Low Appeal

The U.S. optical industry has traditionally positioned eyewear—both internally and externally—as more of a medical necessity than a fashion-forward accessory. Even in boutiques, it’s not uncommon to hear the words, “patient”, “prescription”, “dispensary”, and “insurance.” It’s no surprise that this approach, shaped by eye doctors and opticians, emphasizes eyeglasses as vision correction first and elements of personal style second. Also not surprisingly, the professional culture within the industry has often resisted the notion of eyewear as a retail industry, with many opticians seeing themselves as healthcare professionals rather than as retailers, craftspeople, or fashion experts.

Consequently, consumers have come to associate appointments, eye exams, insurance claims, and weeklong (or more) waits with obtaining a pair of glasses—an experience that some might consider, let’s say, less than desirable. While this approach emphasizes the importance of healthcare and vision correction, it has inadvertently trained people to view eyewear as a commodity or an entitlement—a necessary healthcare expenditure rather than a desirable investment—and frankly a hassle. The process and friction it entails have negatively shaped consumer expectations and made many resistant to spending beyond what their vision care plans allow.  

Enter Internet and Big Box Stores

The introduction of online retailers and big box stores offering cheap eyewear has shown consumers that eyeglasses can be obtained more conveniently and at a fraction of the cost as those found in independent opticals. Consumers have become aware that they can meet their basic vision correction needs without the high costs and inconveniences associated with traditional optical services, even if at the expense of their eye health. This realization has eroded consumer trust and challenged the value proposition of eyewear sold in a brick-and-mortar eye care setting. 

Trying to compete head-to-head with online and big box stores on price is an exercise in futility. The need for independent optical practices to rethink their approach to optical and adapt to a more consumer-friendly model should be clearer than ever in order to rebuild consumer trust and market viability for brick-and-mortar eye care practices.  

The Path Forward: Creating a Unique Retail Experience

To survive and thrive in the evolving optical landscape, independent eye care providers must learn to separate optical from medical and shift the optical side of the business from merely filling prescriptions to creating a destination retail experience emphasizing both the fashion and the stories behind independent eyewear brands and designs. This transformation involves several key strategies. Here are a few:

1. Reimagining the Retail Environment

Independent practices need to create inviting, enjoyable shopping experiences that attract consumers who view eyewear as a statement of personal style or items they want in their collection. This means designing retail spaces that are pleasing and conducive to casual browsing and trying on frames. Incorporating elements of modern retail design, such as comfortable seating, stylish displays, and engaging lighting, can make the process of choosing eyewear more enjoyable and less clinical. Efforts should also be made to make the space memorable and unique to the store’s brand. Combining unexpected themes or appealing to niche interests is an effective way to achieve both. 

2. Emphasizing Eyewear as Fashion

Positioning eyewear as a fashion accessory requires a cultural shift within the practice. Staff should be trained to understand and appreciate the fashion aspects of eyewear and the stories behind the brands, offering style consultations and personalized advice that goes beyond vision correction. Highlighting the unique elements, designs, and craftsmanship of frames can help consumers see their eyewear as an extension of their personal style. In fact, vision correction should almost take a back seat in the presentation as it should be assumed that the expertise of the optician makes functional eyeglasses a foregone conclusion. 

3. Curating Exclusive Collections

Offering a curated selection of unique and high-quality independent frame lines can not only differentiate independent practices from the online and big box stores but the vanilla practices carrying corporate brands down the street as well. Partnering with niche designers and exclusive brands can attract fashion-conscious consumers looking for distinctive eyewear that reflects their individuality. Frame lines should be selected not just for the designs, but also for the stories they tell and how they impact the store’s brand.

4. Leveraging Digital and Social Media

Independent practices should harness the power of digital marketing and social media to showcase their unique offerings and build a loyal community of eyewear enthusiasts. Sharing stories about the brands they carry, behind-the-scenes looks at the craftsmanship of their products, and style tips can engage potential customers and drive traffic to their physical locations. 

5. Streamlining the Customer Journey

While embracing a fashion-forward approach, it’s also essential to address the friction in the traditional buying process. Simplifying appointments, reducing wait times, and offering more transparent pricing can enhance the overall customer experience. Providing flexible payment options and handling insurance claims efficiently (if at all) can help alleviate some of the traditional pain points without sacrificing the personalized touch. In-office finishing is a good way to reduce turnaround time and provide services online and big box stores cannot. 

6. Embrace Niche Markets

Independent optical practices can significantly benefit from catering to specific demographics or interests and carving out a niche in the market. Start with a broader niche such as high-fashion frames, eco-friendly materials, or sports eyewear, and incorporate personal interest to make the store brand 100% unique. This approach intended to “surprise and delight” can attract targeted customer segments, create a strong identity, build loyalty, and encourage word of mouth.  

The Future of Independent Optical

The U.S. optical industry is at a pivotal moment. To compete effectively against the convenience and lower costs offered by online and big box retailers, independent eye care providers must evolve. This evolution involves transforming the eyewear buying experience from a medical transaction into a fashion-forward, enjoyable retail journey. By reimagining the approach and focusing on creating value through unique, independent eyewear and a superior customer experience, independent optical practices can attract and retain a new generation of consumers who view their glasses not as a necessary burden but as a key aspect of their personal style.

Embracing this change is not just about surviving in a competitive market—it’s about redefining what it means to be an independent optical practice and leading the way in an industry that has long been in need of a fresh perspective.

Keith Benjamin
Co-Owner Laramy-K Optical
Co-Founder OpticianWorks and Spexcentric