The CEO's view

“While the threat to High Street optometry is real, it is far too soon to be prophesying that the end is nigh”

There is no single model for future success, writes AOP CEO Adam Sampson

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Admitting I am wrong is never easy for me – or for anybody. But when I was an academic, it was particularly hard. Not for reasons of shame: failure is part of the academic process and whenever you test a hypothesis, you have to be prepared to find that it is false. No – the reason was much more basic. How exactly do you publicly disagree with something you yourself had previously believed? Do you refer to yourself in the first person (“I was mistaken to think…”), which sounds a bit like you are letting yourself off the hook? Or do you attack yourself in the third person (“Adam Sampson foolishly argued…”), which buys distance but sounds a bit weird? Despite the fact I was wrong often, it was a debate I never completely resolved. 

Sadly, that tendency to be wrong did not stop when I left academia. When I was legal ombudsman, I boldly predicted that rising costs, changes in consumer behaviour and the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in legal services would lead to the disappearance of solicitor firms from the High Street within two decades.   

While there has been a significant decline in the number of High Street firms, the High Street solicitor model is still very much alive and, unless something catastrophic happens in the next eight years, my credibility as a latter-day Nostradamus will take another big blow.  

And so it is with some caution that I approach the issue of the future of High Street optometry. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the High Street retail model is under threat. The Mintel data about consumer attitudes to online purchasing continues to show an inexorable increase in consumer preference for remote fulfilment. At the same time, the General Optical Council (GOC) has recently reported that over a quarter of optometry firms are planning to increase investment in AI in the near future and that, overall, more optometrists are pessimistic than optimistic about the long-term future of the profession. The Private Frazers among us have plenty of reason to wail “we are all doomed.” 

At the same time, there are good reasons not to write off High Street optometry. The very Mintel surveys that extol the popularity of online retail also show that consumers/patients value the High Street experience for reasons other than mere ease and price. There is plenty of evidence that while people are happy to shop online for products they know and understand – food, books, clothing – they are more careful about high price, more complex and personalised purchases.  

The GOC survey showed that most businesses are continuing to grow and anticipating further growth. While the threat to High Street optometry is real, it is far too soon to be prophesying that the end is nigh.  

That said, there are some indications that pressures on High Street optometry may play out in different ways on different parts of the sector. The GOC survey shows significant differences in attitude and experience between corporate and independent providers, with the former being notably more bullish about the future than the latter. As financial pressures build and the cost of investment in increasingly complicated equipment increases, it is perhaps inevitable if those practices with immediate access to investment will find it easier to adapt to the ever-changing environment.  

While optometry has not seen the same sudden transformation of the market that has affected legal services and, more particularly, the veterinary sector (where the Competition and Markets Authority has just announced an enquiry into allegations of the price rigging), it seems likely that the slow move in optometry away from small, independent practice ownership will continue.  

More significant will be the impact of the trend confirmed by the GOC survey (and from data from bodies like Primary Eyecare Services) of the growth in clinical activity on the High Street. The conspicuous failure on the part of government to respond to the growing secondary care waiting lists by moving more clinical work into primary care optometry should not be allowed to mask the fact that clinical activity is continuing to increase. Moreover, with an election looming and the polls steady, the prospect of a Labour administration (nominally, at least) committed to increasing the role of primary care, the pace of clinical change is likely to quicken.  

For some, that will come as good news. Some of the corporates – Specsavers particularly – are overt in seeing clinical activity as a core part of its future business strategy. Many independents are also committed to an increasingly clinical future. But with others, things are not so clear. Many of the smaller business owners among the AOP membership have for some time been flirting with giving up their NHS contracts to go entirely private. For the corporates – well, I have no insight into the long-term strategic aspirations of Vision Express, but if the layout of its new flagship operation on Oxford Street is anything to go by, its business model will remain built around a predominantly retail model. 

What is clear is that, as with other sectors, there is no single model for future success. Yes – the number of High Street solicitor firms has declined and, for those that remain, the business model is not the same as it was two decades ago. But the High Street model in law has remained stubbornly robust, despite the predictions of smart-arse commentators like Adam Sampson. If knowledge is based on learning from failure, I have learned my lesson. I am leaving the prediction game to others to play.