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The discussion

“Businesses that thrive are those that adapt to shifts in consumer behaviour”

How can practices go about ensuring the clinical aspect of their service if their business is increasingly taking place online? OT  spoke to experts from across the optical landscape to find out

Computer screen
Getty/JuliaSim

The optical retail landscape was already moving online, but the events of 2020 have accelerated this process in an unprecedented way. With practices across the UK closed to all but urgent and essential work for the entire spring and into the summer, many found themselves without the reliable income stream that they’d usually get from frame sales.

How did practices address this sudden, potentially devastating, situation? It was inevitable that those with existing e-commerce offerings (that is, the ability to sell items online as well as in practice) would find themselves better able to weather the storm than others.

So, can lessons be taken from those who had already invested in e-commerce tools, or managed to incorporate them during the lockdown? OT speaks to experts from a range of contexts to see how their businesses fared, and what advice they can give for others looking to fully integrate e-commerce into their practices’ offerings.

An inevitable move online

Specsavers, which launched its e-commerce platform before the initial UK lockdown was announced, believes that the move online “was probably always going to happen – it was just when and how.”

Chris Carter, the multiple’s trading director, told OT: “Specsavers has been selling contact lenses online for a while now, so extending the offering to glasses was the natural progression, reflecting the way some customers want to shop.

“As the shift to more online retail is well documented in other industries, we chose to launch an e-commerce platform to give customers access to a more complete Specsavers service – online as well as in stores.”

He adds that when it came to the lockdown, “the greatest help was allowing customers who were otherwise unable to see us to purchase their glasses online. It was particularly vital for existing customers who had broken or lost glasses and were desperate for a replacement.

“It also enabled us to test the technology and service at a greater scale than we anticipated, due to larger volumes of online customers. This helped us to quickly identify areas of improvement and accelerate any necessary changes.”

Specsavers isn’t the only multiple to invest in e-commerce. High Street rival Vision Express has gone online this year too, rolling out its digital platform in July.

With support, independents are also embracing this new opportunity. Mark Preston, head of digital at Hakim Group, told OT how the pandemic sped up the digitalisation of the group’s offering, “adapting to e-commerce and omnichannel is part of an ongoing strategy for all our independent practices.”

Mr Preston said: “There was a real focus on this in the early weeks of the pandemic due to customers being unable to leave their homes. A new page was integrated onto each practice’s personalised website, supported by social media promotions, which allowed patients to remotely purchase an exclusive selection of frames, which could be then delivered to their door.”

Chris Mantle, senior marketing manager at Ocuco’s marketing branch, OptiCommerce, believes that the pandemic will cause long-term shifts in customers’ behaviours: “We're doing a lot more research for everything online now,” he told OT. “People are still a little bit wary of going into store.”

He added: “It's about digital visibility. If you're not visible enough, somebody else will be. If you don't have the facilities to be able to book an appointment online, to message, to potentially look at frame catalogues online, the chances are somebody else might.”

He emphasised that “having a good web presence, that is up to date and refreshed, is important,” and identified frame catalogues, virtual try-ons, virtual consultations and virtual shopping as key options that practice owners should consider.

Getting it set up

For independent practice owner Valarie Jerome, establishing an e-commerce offering at the start of the pandemic was essential – largely because she’d only opened her practice at the beginning of the year, and needed to solidify her customer base.

Dr Jerome told OT: “It's something that I've tried to teach myself. During lockdown I began to watch a series of Facebook Lives that were put on by Small Business Saturday UK, teaching every small business how to use e-commerce to take their business online.”

She added: “I had to learn how to pivot and how to adapt my business. I began doing virtual consultations, which I was basically giving away for £20. Then I put all my products online and developed my shop. I spent probably 24 hours trying to teach myself how to how to use Shopify.

“A multiple would be able to knock that out in a few hours, because they have a team of IT experts. I'm no IT expert, but I had to teach myself because I had no other choice.”

Creating an e-commerce offering was a matter of survival for her business, she believes: “I think had I not been in that position, I wouldn't have forced myself to do it. But I needed to have some kind of income to be able to know that my business could survive after lockdown, because it is the way that I feed my family. I don't have any other sources of income, besides being an optometrist. You can only live off savings for so long. I think, had I not been in such a fight or flight sort of mode, I would never have done it.”

I needed to have some kind of income to be able to know that my business could survive

Valarie Jerome, independent optometrist


Specsavers’ told OT that their biggest concern in designing an e-commerce service was creating a great online customer experience, so their in-store standards could be reflected digitally.

Chris Carter explained: “If we look at the product browsing in-store, customers are guided and advised by highly trained colleagues who help them find the right frames for them. To help simulate this online, we offer services like virtual try-on and aim to provide the best product browsing and frame selection experience.”

What about clinical considerations, in terms of ensuring the right products for the right conditions?

“Customers are asked to name their local store, and the store helps with questions about purchase, checking pupil distance, the fit of new glasses, returns or aftercare,” Mr Carter told OT. This link between the customer’s usual store and the online experience allows for a level of personal service that could be lost otherwise.

But what of smaller practices and independents, who do not have the full weight of a corporate machine behind them? How can they go about ensuring the quality of an e-commerce platform, potentially with a much more limited set of resources?

Chris Mantle, of Opticommerce, believes “optical retailers shouldn't be afraid, but they should understand it.” He uses the metaphor of the sign falling off the front of their store, which “they'd get replaced, every single time.”

“You need to be visible online,” he emphasised. “You need to be able to be found. Once you know how to do that, and you proportion an amount of time to be able to do that each month, then it's not an arduous task. It does take time. It does take effort. It can take expense if you don't do it right. But ultimately, you will drive return on investment.” In the context of recurrent lockdowns, he says, this is especially important.

Combining digitalisation within in-store experience

Lesley Gregory, head of digital at Vision Express, told OT that “free life-long service, access to in-store adjustments, and a 60-day guarantee” enable Vision Express customers to find the service they need in whatever form is easiest for them. It’s something the multiple calls an “omni-channel optical retailing experience.”

Specsavers is also invested in the “omni-channel service,” which Chris Carter believes attracts new customers and allows for greater retention. “Today’s customer wants the flexibility to either research frame choices on a website and then buy in-store, or they'll research in the store and buy online,” he said.

“We work closely with our partners to make sure the e-commerce service compliments all the ways that a customer can interact with us. We know that some customers will only shop in-store and some only online. Some do both. Therefore, we offer this multi-channel service. Their next eye test will probably be in their chosen store, and they can buy frames instore or buy online again.”

As practices look towards an “omni-channel” future, solutions are emerging to assist their endeavours. Launched in the Netherlands but now with an office in the UK, tech start-up PTTRNS.ai has created a solution that allows optometrists to load patients’ personal prescriptions into an online system after an in-store test, combining this with style preferences and guaranteeing that they receive the correct prescription for all online purchases.

Kristien Wendt, UK partner at PTTRNS.ai, told OT: “When someone is going to invest £200 or £300, they want to make sure their prescription is up to date. So, we were obviously looking at how that could be developed.

“A customer would walk into the retailer and go through the process of having their eyes tested and getting that prescription, but instead of being required to hang around or take glasses off the shelf, we would open an online account for them that would have their prescription detailed, directly from the opticians.

“They'll go in, have their eye test, and then they can go home, try on the glasses in their own time and go through whatever frames they want, knowing that when they press that button to buy that prescription is correct. That's how we've been looking at how to join the retail and the online experience and merge those together.”

Crucially, PTTRNS.ai runs through an API, which, with help from the team, is embedded onto a practice’s website. This means practices can be assured that all purchases are still made via their website, rather than through a third-party platform.

After a patient places an order, they receive a video call from a member of that practice team who provides them with a personalised consultation to discuss their prescription and any other special requirements

Mark Preston, head of digital at Hakim Group

Chris Mantle believes that it’s an ecosystem that incorporates a practice’s booking system, frame catalogues and contact lens selections into an online platform, which works alongside the in-store experience. Practices, he emphasised, “need to think holistically. It's not just about digital marketing, it is about the whole omni-channel approach.” 

This multi-level approach is something that the Hakim Group has prioritised too. Mark Preston explained how remote consultations became a key part of the offering of Hakim practices during the lockdown: “Clinical care and the personalised touch are still at the heart of the transactions through the practice website, with our concierge approach,” he said. “After a patient places an order, they receive a video call from a member of that practice team who provides them with a personalised consultation to discuss their prescription and any other special requirements they may have.”

Realising the limitations

E-commerce alone cannot solve all the challenges that a practice might be facing. Although it’s becoming an increasingly essential part of a business’ repertoire, it shouldn’t be seen as a golden ticket to survival – even during a pandemic.

Chris Carter explained how Specsavers keeps the balance in check: “Clinical excellence and customer eye care remain top priorities, and this can only be delivered through our stores,” he told OT. “We only offer e-commerce to customers with a valid, single vision prescription within specific sphere limits. Any complex orders are halted before the customers submits their order and they are directed to stores where a more comprehensive service can be offered.”

It’s about assisting the patient at all touch points, ensuring that the online and in-store experiences complement each other to deliver a more engaging and interactive service to the customer

Mark Preston, head of digital at Hakim Group

This doesn’t mean, as the Hakim Group has demonstrated, that a remote consultation can’t be used as an effective follow-up when a customer has made an online purchase. On the limitations of e-commerce, Mr Preston said: “Whilst we have seen increased activity towards e-commerce in the optical space, accelerated by COVID-19, the reality is that prescription eyewear is still an assisted purchase. Home try-on services have helped with the fitting element of the process, which was always a shortcoming of online commerce, however it’s unlikely to completely replace the in-store experience.

“Professional eye care expertise remains a key factor in the process, and therefore a strong omni-channel presence is the best way to deal with changing patient habits. It’s about assisting the patient at all touch points, ensuring that the online and in-store experiences complement each other to deliver a more engaging and interactive service to the customer.”

Practice challenges

From a practical perspective, Chris Mantle is aware that developing an online offering holds potential issues for practices. He identifies stock (knowing exactly how much is available, and the process of uploading it onto the website) and how to price items as the biggest challenges.

Paul Clare, OptiCommerce’s director, identifies one solution that the company offers when it builds e-commerce sites for practices: “We've got something called the Frames Cloud, which is a repository of all the frame data, including images, all broken down to gender, size, and colour,” he told OT. “There's very rich data.”

PTTRNS.ai is committed to lowering the tech barrier, to make its offering as simple as possible for practices. Their practical solutions include ensuring that 2D rather than 3D images can be used, and that the solution’s API can be incorporated to the extent that the user feels comfortable with. There is no one size fits all approach. “If this tool is something that they see value in,” says Jaap Evertse, PTTRNS.ai’s operations director, “they can integrate it to the extent that they like.”

The future

Valarie Jerome is clear that her business required an e-commerce solution because it was brand new, and that this approach might not be needed by every practice. She told OT: “If you've got an established base, if you've got thousands of patients on the books, you don't need to do any of this. Because I was a brand-new independent, I had no other choice.

“I think there still is a lot to be said for the independent in terms of the patient experience. A lot of people want that experience that they get from an independent. But there are quite a few that want to be able to at least look at your products online before they come in the door.

Customers are putting their trust in digital transactions at an all-time high

Chris Carter, trading director at Specsavers


“After the first lockdown, I started to do online booking. When I started my practice, I had thought I wouldn’t be able to - that I’d need to know more about the patient, to understand and be able to talk to them; to be more personal.” Since implementing online booking, though, she is finding that 60-70% of her patients are choosing this option.

At Specsavers, Chris Carter believes that “e-commerce is a way to enhance the core optical customer experience, revolving around an eye test with a trained professional” and that practices shouldn’t expect e-commerce solutions to change their core business overnight.

“We look for ways that online sales can work around our existing service, by offering a specific selection of products or targeting a specific segment of customers (such as simple prescriptions),” he said. “As for tech, a good tip is to consider an off-the-shelf provider, who can significantly reduce your time and cost to get into the market. And remember to test, and retest.”

To hesitant practice owners, Mr Carter offers this advice: “The reality of online product retail and services continues to grow each year. Convenience is key for many people and a growing segment of consumers prefer to buy online more than any other way, so we have to offer a range of services to suit changing consumer behaviour.”

E-commerce is a way to enhance the core optical customer experience, revolving around an eye test with a trained professional

Chris Carter, trading director at Specsavers


“Customer behaviour during lockdown made buying items online the new norm for a lot of things. Customers are putting their trust in digital transactions at an all-time high.

“Businesses that thrive are those that adapt to shifts in consumer behaviour. We must listen to our customers, including opening up the options of how they interact with us.”

Perfectly placed independents

For Valarie Jerome, the impact of teaching herself about e-commerce has been clear: with an online booking system, a website, and shops on Facebook and Instagram, she has found herself selling online to customers in locations she never would have reached otherwise. When speaking to OT, she is finishing a fully booked week and has only a couple of appointments available in the following one.

“Finally,” she said, “if you type in 'Newbury opticians', I show up in the list. I'm number five, but I'm getting there.” She estimates that 60% of her customers found her via social media.

Chris Mantle believes that independents are well placed to adapt their offering to incorporate e-commerce, and that the potential is clear.

“It takes around 66 days for habits to become permanent,” he told OT. “We saw that in the pandemic. We saw that shift online. That has stuck. We're still in the throes of the pandemic, so it's really important that people do embrace this. It's not too late. It is sticking; it has stuck.

“E-commerce growth is up by 50-55% in Europe. We're also seeing that eye wear, as a product online, is forecasted to grow around 13% over the next couple of years. I think it’s probably going to be a bit more.”

At Hakim, Mark Preston believes that independents are perfectly placed to continue prioritising high levels of customer service and clinical care whilst offering an online service. He told OT: “The agility and attitude to adapt from all our independent practices has been remarkable, particularly through lockdown. Many practice team members hand-delivered straight to the doors of patients who needed an emergency pair of glasses, or to those self-isolating and unable to leave their house.”

He added: “The service was also a way of providing social interaction to the vulnerable members of their community, along with other services such as fixing broken glasses on their doorsteps, and even the odd delivery of milk and bread. Although our independent practices are changing the way some of their business is done, patient care and wellbeing remains the priority.”