Online Eyewear Vs Retail Opticians

Online Eyewear Vs Retail Opticians

Despite a strong brand and visibility in the marketplace, e-commerce players maintain a very small share of the highly fragmented eyewear market… Views as expressed and contributed by Pragnesh Gangar

In India, initially the e-commerce based eyewear segment was considered to be a lucrative sector, but it hasn't lived up to expectations especially when compared to the success of e-commerce in other industries. 

One may wonder why this happened. Well, one of the reasons is that consumers, especially those who wear prescription lenses, still prefer to shop for their glasses in person rather than buy them online. Since their vision is at stake, the concept of experiencing/evaluating the features of the product is still very important.

The clear conclusion that a lot of the eyewear e-commerce giants have drawn is that only online is not enough, you need to have physical stores as well.

The facts and figures

The claims elaborated above are based on actual figures. While the numbers for India are still unavailable, in the Americas reports show that e-commerce sales in the eyewear industry grew by just 4% compounded annually compared to an 18% CAGR for overall e-commerce retail sales in the region over the past five years. Needless to say the number in India will be lower.

Importantly in  countries like the USA, larger (and profitable) competitors have a distinct advantage over the leading e-commerce eyewear brand- Warby Parker. With a much larger base of retail stores (where consumers prefer to shop for eyewear), they have revenue, profits and can move into e-commerce more easily and cheaply than Warby Parker can expand its physical retail presence.

Some studies also indicate that half of the online purchases are returned due to incorrect prescription and other problems. Things like progressive lenses can't be bought online as they require detailed measurements. Interaction with the optician to understand the best fit for your prescription is also missing when you buy online.All this indicate that the success for eyewear e-commerce without physical stores is still far.

The Indian front

However, in India the scenario is little different because the organised players did not grow fast when it was needed. Ecommerce giant in eyewear has the highest number of retail presence as well as online presence in India.

There are hardly few national and some regional players in Indian optical retail to compete as they own very few number of stores against the e-commerce giant.

Through strategic advertising efforts in India, e-commerce giant has become a household name for buying glasses online. They market their home try-on offering, which allows customers to order some frames to try for free in the cozy confines of their home with almost a no-question asked return policy for the frames they don't want. 

This strategy eases  customers concerns of ordering a pair that they don't like, however it results in additional costs to manage the logistics and intake of returns. Interestingly, it's not something unique as local opticians also offer similar services.

The contrasting reality

There was this early euphoria that there was a new model where you didn't need stores anymore. Eyewear e-commerce was being portrayed as the new way of doing things, taking the product directly to the consumer, setting up an ecommerce website and giving discounts, freebies, etc. But, the once enthusiastic e-commerce players are now realising this model is not sustainable.

There was an initial phase where they could achieve some success in disrupting the market without stores (especially single vision buyers), and it was a little easy to acquire young customers. But it's not easy to achieve hundreds of crores annual revenue without retail stores. There is a need for physical stores as a cost-effective customer acquisition channel at some point.

Many such brands have debuted and labeled themselves in the DTC (Direct To Consumer) category in different businesses in recent years. The strategy involves avoiding wholesale channels, to forge stronger relationships with customers.

Its difficult for the traditional retailers to survive against such a strategy as they have to work with various distributors and suppliers. However, there are ways to deal with this issue.Opticians also need to understand their strength as they are the “Eyecare Experts” and comprehensive eyecare is not possible on e-commerce platform alone. We, the opticians understand this category better than these e-commerce players. We have also set very high service standards for decades. Many of us are serving people for more than three generations by giving affordable and easily accessible eyecare including free eye check ups and free alteration of glasses (tightening , fixing screws, nose pads etc)  Its time for them to make the customer value our services and expertise.

It's time for traditional opticians to shake off the old way of doing business. Look at the world through a new lens, explore new ways of thinking, innovating, using more exciting forms of technology and building newer ways to adapt and thrive in an emerging new nation that will look at the future with a fresh pair of eyes!