Online Onslaught. Are ECPs Getting Disillusioned?

Disruptions in business in general or in the optical business are not new. Change, as they say, is the only constant and things evolve according to times and conditions. But is the online retailing revolution more change than the industry can handle? Siraj Bolar shares his insights on this

The end of the nineties and beginning of the noughties saw the Chinese eyewear products invade Indian optical market disrupting the eyewear manufacturing business in the country in a big way. Many a small eyewear manufacturing unit in parts of the country like Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal got affected very adversely and a majority of them even closed. Even a popular brand like Rajni Frames, which was, at that time, a serious competition for international brands, was affected by this invasion.

If then, it was manufacturing segment that suffered, today a similar situation is being experienced by a larger segment of the optical business – the retailers, wholesalers and distributors. And this time it’s not the Chinese product invasion but the unprecedented technology onslaught, that’s the cause.

In normal circumstances the advent of technology should have benefited the business but somehow one aspect- Online Retailing – is becoming the bane of contention.

Lenskart, a new startup by one smart believer in this technology part emerged from nowhere and suddenly things for the smaller retail optical business didn’t look so good. And the startup saw success coming perhaps in less time than estimated.

The bigger players are probably successful in standing their ground and maybe some of them even giving some competition to Lenskart, but for the majority of smaller retailers, it’s a tough time for survival. This phenomenon is unprecedented and is hitting the conventional optical community big time. A son of a prime optical multiple store owner narrated me on his thoughts on joining his father in contributing to the business. His concern seemed so realistic that after earning a master’s degree in business management in the hope of adding to the family business he now contemplates to go abroad and work there than fulfil his father’s ambition. This is the story of many a optical business family today.

There is a drastic change in customer behaviour in the current times specially of the millennials born where the young shoppers are attracted more towards online shopping. This is for reasons like convenience of shopping and the kind of choices including price discounts offered in online e-commerce portals. It’s a global phenomena and one that’s definitely affecting India very strongly.

Optical retailing being a specialized business unlike some fast moving goods retailing in all fairness should not have suffered because of this change in the consumer behaviour. What the shoppers of optical products miss here is the understanding the importance of eye care or eye health while shopping eyewear products online. Eyewear products are bought like any fast moving consumer product ignoring the fact that eyewear is a paramedical product which is not retailed but dispensed where expertise or qualifications in optometry is involved.

In the meantime it is another matter that in the current times eyewear is not perceived as just an eye-care product but also a fashion product which, is actually a welcome development, but ignoring the other aspect i.e. visioncare would not be wise.

And unfortunately for the optical businessmen, there’s no avenue or means to make the shoppers understand this aspect.

Could making common people understand the difference between buying eyewear products online and from stores help the business? We would say emphatically yes to this question. It was not necessary at earlier times for the opticians to promote themselves. People would come searching the stores in the localities or in high streets of the cities they live. But for today’s environment and today’s lifestyles of people, mainly for the younger lot what attracts is what is trending in their surroundings and more so in social media at a given time.

Competition is taken in two ways in any field. one is by surrendering to it and failing and the other is by analysing, evolving/adapting and succeeding. What is the choice for the optical community? If the choice is the latter, then what the conventional optical community needs today, is the spirit of facing the competition head on and succeeding.

This is possible only by coming together of the whole fraternity as a united front and take on the competition by winning the customer confidence in them for the benefits of buying from them vis a vis the online buying. They can add to it the experience of shopping in their stores by customizing in their own style and means.

This is not something the players in the optical community can do individually. For best result the community should come together as one force. After joining hands what it needs is to start with a well conceived promotional campaign planned and executed to effectively disrupt the disruption. This therefore needs a professional way of handling this job. Maybe a well established professional or group of professionals in the field of advertising and promoting a new idea! But who will be able to take up this responsibility?

We have different regional optical associations who work in the interest of their respective members. These associations can come together for this purpose collectively as one group. Once that happens these associations should come forward to contribute as per their merit and ability the financial help needed for such an exercise. Once that is in place and action taken in this direction the chances of bringing happier days back for the optical community. How soon or later this can happen depends on two factors.. whether the industry wants to wait and hope or take things into its own hands, come together on a single platform and do something about it… together.

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