Online eyewear retailers are capturing consumers’ interest—and dollars. Warby Parker is probably eye doctors’ biggest online competition, notes VisionWeb. The style-savvy startup has upped their game by opening up a number of retail locations around the U.S. Other online competitors to watch out for include brands like BonLook, Lookmatic, Eyefly, and many more.

How concerned should eye care professionals be about online eyewear retailers? And how can doctors combat the trend and keep their patients safe and happy? The key is educating yourself, and your patients.

The commoditization of eyewear

While the number of people buying eyewear online has increased significantly since 2011, it’s still not as prevalent as online shopping for other retail goods. Certain groups of eyewear consumers are most likely to buy online. These include contact lens wearers, men, younger Americans, and relatively affluent Americans, according to the Vision Council’s 2015 VisionWatch Internet Influence Report. Just over 30 percent of recent buyers used the Internet during their last contact lens purchase, as did 22.5 percent of prescription eyeglass buyers.

The number-one reason consumers are turning to online retailers is cost. People most often compare prices of eyewear online, according to the VisionWatch report. Online retailers consistently send patients the message that their glasses are the same as what you get at traditional brick-and-mortar locations, and that their products cost less than traditional retailers, explains the Review of Optometry.

“Online retailers are doing their best to commoditize eyewear. … So, if the patient relies on the information from the online retailer, price is then the only factor in purchasing a pair of eyeglasses. As we know, this is far from the truth—and it’s based on misinformation,” states the article.

The importance of accuracy

So what can you do about it? Patient education is key, and using high-quality videos is ideal for this purpose. Make sure your patients know that cost and style aren’t the only considerations when purchasing prescription eyeglasses. Accuracy of the prescription and fit is of utmost importance. Patients may not realize that if measurements are even a fraction off, they won’t get the best vision results—and it may even harm their eyes.

Your patient education efforts should emphasize that buying contact lenses online is not the best way to ensure quality and safety. (See: “Only Buy Contacts from Eye Care Provider”) Your patient education should also cover that for glasses wearers, all lenses are not created equal. Discuss the different lens materials, such as traditional plastic, as well as thinner, lighter materials. And explain other considerations, such as non-glare coatings and photochromic lenses. (See: “Glare Free Lenses”)

Patients need to know that online retailers simply don’t measure up when it comes to accuracy and safety. In a recent study, researchers discovered that nearly half of all glasses (44.8 percent) ordered online either contained an inaccurate prescription or didn’t meet safety standards designed to protect the eyes, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of the lenses failed impact resistance testing–a major safety issue. Children’s glasses performed even worse, with 29 percent failing impact testing. (See: “Safest Lens Materials for Kids”)

Explain to patients that pupil distance (PD) determines where to place the center of each lens in their frames to customize them to their eyes. It’s critical that an experienced eye care professional provide this measurement. As the AOA puts it, “Measuring your PD is akin to cutting your own hair. It isn’t easy.”

Most online retailers highly recommend that an optometrist provide the PD to ensure accuracy, but this measurement is not part of the prescription and not normally provided unless patients ask for it. It’s up to individual doctors, and in some cases state laws, how to handle the issue. “Some doctors charge a fee for giving a patient a PD, but then offer that as a credit if the patient purchases glasses from the practice. Others simply give the PD in good faith and with some education on the benefits of the eyewear that they dispense,” reports the Review of Optometry.

Style, selection, and service

Besides better prices, consumers who buy glasses online are looking for more selection and style than many optical dispensaries offer. It’s wise to carry a variety of styles in a range of price points. To keep patients on-site and boost optical sales, you might also consider providing iPads with virtual try-on technology to let patients see how they’d look in frames you may not have in stock. One company looking to bridge the gap between brick-and-mortar dispensaries and online retailers with no eye care expertise is MyOnlineOptical.com. By offering a huge range of inventory and handling shipping, it provides a retail solution for eye care professionals so they can get in on the online sales trend, and their patients won’t need to go elsewhere.

However, according to the VisionWatch report, the biggest barrier to buying glasses online is that people want to be able to try them on in person. Use this to your advantage by emphasizing your expertise to patients, in person and in your marketing materials. Not only can a licensed optician help them pick out the right frames for their face, they can fit the frames to each individual patient on the spot to ensure a proper fit. Patients can’t get that from a web site—nor can they get follow-up care. Let patients know that if anything doesn’t feel right after a few days, they can come back and get their glasses adjusted quickly.

Focus on what you can provide that online retailers can’t. Many patients would prefer to support a locally owned small business rather than a faceless multi-national corporation. Taking the time to provide top-notch customer service, educate patients, and form an ongoing relationship between patients and a trusted eye care provider are things that will never be impacted by trends.

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