“Having an opticians in-store makes our customers’ lives easier”
Rob Coleman, business lead at M&S Opticians, and store manager, Sarah Wilson-Suffield, explain how the brand’s store rollout is prioritising customer convenience
03 April 2022
Rob Coleman, business lead, M&S Opticians
Can you tell me where you are in the rollout of the new M&S Opticians branches?Rob Coleman (RC): We’re about a third of the way through the rollout now, and are on track to be complete by March 2023.
Did the delay to the rollout (because of the pandemic) mean you did things differently when you did launch?RC: We’ve taken time to learn from our initial trial and have really focused on choosing the right locations for our customers, so in that sense the pandemic didn’t slow anything down for us. I’m confident with the stores we have chosen: they are in prime locations with optimal customer demand and great potential for the future. So far, our customers have really taken to each of the stores we have launched, which would suggest we’re getting it right.
What value do you hope the new M&S Opticians will bring to the High Street?
RC: It’s not just the High Street: M&S has stores in a whole range of locations and formats all over the UK, reflective of the way our customers choose to shop in the 21st century – from High Streets to retail parks to shopping centres.
Wherever our stores are located, customers can count on us to deliver a point of difference: outstanding customer service and great products at remarkable value. We have a real focus on the customer, which is why we offer longer appointment slots than most of our competitors. We take pride in being trusted by our customers to look after their optical health, and that’s why we’re so rigorous in our testing offer. For example, we offer free OCT testing as part of our standard eye test, which not all providers do.
There have already been a number of occasions where the rigour of our testing has helped identify other eye health conditions for customers, which otherwise might have gone unnoticed. This is something I’m really proud of. Our customers can trust M&S Opticians to deliver the best possible optical service and care.
We’ve taken time to learn from our initial trial and have really focussed on choosing the right locations for our customers
We’ve also made sure our customers can engage with us online by re-launching our website with features such as virtual try-on. This means that our customers can browse and buy without the need to visit a local branch if they have an up-to-date single vision prescription.
Having optical practices inside M&S stores is an interesting model – can you speak about the value of hybrid models, i.e., letting people do multiple things (food shopping, eye exams) at the same time?
RC: We’re committed to making shopping as easy and convenient as possible for our customers – that’s what our opticians strategy is all about. Our initial trial found that customers loved the convenience of being able to have an eye test whilst doing the weekly shop, which is why we’re pushing forward with our full rollout. Having an opticians in-store makes our customers’ lives easier and gives them another reason to shop with us.
Are there any key learnings you’d take from working on a rollout during a pandemic?
RC: I think a key learning was around communication. Like with all businesses, during the pandemic it had never been so important to remain in regular contact with our customers and keep them updated with important announcements – even more so for us, given the nature of the service we provide. Unfortunately, during the pandemic many people put their eyesight to the back of their minds, so one of the things we did was post eye health FAQs on our website to provide tips and advice for our customers.
Our initial trial found that customers loved the convenience of being able to have an eye test whilst doing the weekly shop
Another learning was the heightened need for an online customer experience, as I mentioned previously. We’re all aware of the huge shift towards online shopping in the last two years, and this was important for us at M&S Opticians too. The pandemic gave us the impetus to accelerate our omnichannel credentials so that customers could have just as good a shopping experience online as they would in-store.
Have customers reacted well to having the practices embedded within stores so far?
RC: We’ve been delighted with how customers have responded to us so far. The average customer satisfaction rate is 96.5% across all the branches we’ve opened, which is ahead of our expectations. Customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive - they think it’s a great idea with great service, products and value.
Sarah Wilson-Suffield, store manager, M&S Opticians, M&S Hedge End
How have you found the concept of being fully embedded within an M&S store? How does this format compare to a traditional High Street optician?
Sarah Wilson-Suffield (SWS): It’s been brilliant. We’ve felt part of the M&S family from day one – the Hedge End team have been so friendly and welcoming. Before I joined M&S Opticians, I used to work for another High Street opticians, so I have the experience of both formats – and I much prefer being inside an M&S store.
On the High Street, the biggest challenge is enticing customers into your store in the first place. Unless they need eye care, the chances are they’re not going to pop in and browse. However, with us, customers are already inside the store browsing, just in other areas. My team do a brilliant job of engaging with customers and letting them know about us – and most customers are receptive to hearing about everything we have to offer.
What’s been the biggest challenge running your store?
SWS: As a new store, we were effectively a brand-new business, which means we’ve had to completely build ourselves up from scratch. Crucially, this has included hiring a whole new team of colleagues and getting the word out to customers that we’re here, to help build up our customer database. That’s probably been the biggest challenge. Word of mouth has been our biggest tool in getting the word out – we’ve been working hard to offer a brilliant service so that any customers who do visit us return, and recommend us to their friends & family.
On the High Street, the biggest challenge is enticing customers into your store in the first place
How has the ‘virtual try-on’ tool and online booking system worked out alongside the in-store experience? Have customers been receptive to using the technology?
SWS: The virtual try-on has been really popular. We find that customers tend to browse our ranges online and use the try-on tool to identify a shortlist of frames they like, before coming into store and checking them out for real. It works well. It’s the same with the online booking system – online is a key part of the shopping experience nowadays, as we all know.
What do your local customers think of the new M&S Opticians?
SWS: Customers love it, and it’s becoming increasingly popular with each day that goes by. We’ve found that when customers have visited us once, they come back again and again. I’m sure, as we roll out more M&S Opticians across the country, the brand awareness will increase, and we’ll become recognised as a market leader in great service.
We find that customers tend to browse our ranges online and use the try-on tool to identify a shortlist of frames they like, before coming into store and checking them out for real
The main thing customers love is convenience: they can have their eye test whilst doing the weekly shop. Interestingly, we get a lot of customers who have already got their prescription from another provider, but have since heard about M&S Opticians, so have come to us to buy their glasses.
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