How to compete with online sellers

November 15, 2023
Lean into the experience your practice offers patients.
Woman trying on virtual glasses from her phone

Excerpted from page 22 of the October 2023 edition of AOA Focus.

Online shopping touts convenience and competitive pricing as X factors for customers’ purchasing decisions, with e-commerce users growing to nearly 290 million Americans by 2027, Statista reports. But purchasing ophthalmic medical devices (e.g., eyeglasses and contact lenses) is not the same as purchasing a pair of blue jeans—and it’s crucial for patients to understand this message.

While it may seem daunting competing against big box retailers in the e-commerce era, there are facets of the patient care experience that cannot be replicated by online sellers. Developing patient relations and education are critical to optometry practices that can leverage these unique strengths to provide exceptional value to patients and stay competitive in the age of online shopping.

Consider these strategies:

1) Reiterate the value of receiving in-person care.

While patients may search online for a perceived materials deal, doctors can emphasize that real value is provided by the in-office experience. Time is money, too, so pointing to the pitfalls of the online ordering process also can catch patients’ ears.

Karl Citek, O.D., Ph.D., notes there are things doctors can provide that online sellers simply cannot, such as a proper interpupillary distance measure or accurate positioning of progressive addition lenses for the reading zone of the lens. Furthermore, the in-office experience allows expert guidance finding the best style and type of lens for a patient’s particular visual task, as well as the proper frame based on their prescription. And let’s not forget the necessary adjustments provided in-office that aren’t available upon receipt of a package in the mail or checking to ensure correct prescription power, both of which could result in added time, money and frustration dealing with a faceless retailer online.

2) Provide great, personalized patient service and education.

You simply cannot deliver on the value of receiving in-person care if you don’t approach it from a place of exceptional patient service, says Kenneth Daniels, O.D. It starts with that “we are here for you” mentality that accentuates a personal and individual experience—something customers won’t receive from perusing a one-size-fits-all online store.

“We are here to care for you directly,” Dr. Daniels says.

Toward that end, even the most endearing service could still result in a patient wanting to shop around, so don’t just give that prescription on a pad and bid them farewell without taking the opportunity to inform. Use that prescription release to educate the patient and help them become “buyer aware,” i.e., educate about lens designs, the importance of proper fit and the risks of improper wear. Let the patient know that it is the vendor’s responsibility to make any repairs or adjustments and is liable.

Dr. Daniels adds that his office does not service online vendor glasses—and they tell patients as much—due to poor materials that easily break and lens coatings that craze.

3) Do a one-up on online sellers.

Again, customer service is your selling point over any online transaction, so Viola Kanevsky, O.D., recommends when providing patients a copy of their prescription, encourage them to fill it with a licensed professional.

“As long as they aren’t wearing virtual eyewear, they shouldn’t rely on virtual fittings,” Dr. Kanevsky says. “Physical comfort requires a human touch.”

The advent of virtual try-on features may attempt to speak to patients’ look, but they are no replacement for a physical fit. Frames that are too large or heavy or that sit on the face incorrectly will result in a dissatisfied customer, and worse, may result in vision problems or headaches. So, too, online retailers’ use of digitally guided eye tests, using phone-computer combinations to generate refractive results, are hardly any replacement for a comprehensive eye examination. For years, the AOA has spoken out about the use of the term “exam” in relation to these eye tests to ensure consumers aren’t misled into assuming their regular health needs are met.

4) Offer a superior selection of products.

Lean into your selection of carefully curated, quality eyewear. True, online retailers may have pages upon pages of eyewear for customers to peruse, but often these products are of lesser quality frames, optics and coatings, Dr. Daniels says. They, online vendors and many big box stores, have limited offerings to a single lens design, single coating, single frame material and no services offered, which for them increases margins using low cost of goods products, unlike the array of quality products offered in optometric offices. Their trendiness quickly fades when customers realize how frequently such products need replacing. The same is true of some direct-to-consumer online contact lens brands, using outdated lens materials to pass off as their own design. Furthermore, some of these companies have been shown to substitute their own lenses in place of what was prescribed for a patient’s individual needs. This is not only illegal but clinically dangerous, Dr. Daniels says, adding: “Quality is what we need to offer our patients, as well as quality costs.”

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