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business models, strategies and technologies

Taking the schizophrenic out of optician

The ie-glasses rethink of the optician’s shop as design emporium – some thoughts about customer-centricity (or lack thereof) in the optician’s trade

From optician to design outlet

On a recent visit to Copenhagen, I chanced upon what seemed like a refreshing (partial) rethink of the business model for the optician’s shop.

The shop is ie-glasses. The company’s brochure starts by declaring that this optician’s shop isn’t an optician’s shop – it’s a design outlet. That alone was enough to catch my attention. Because it tapped into an identity problem that’s perplexed me every time I’ve tried to buy new eyewear.

Schizophrenic identity

Most conventional optician’s emporiums seem to be characterised by an unfortunate ”double identity”. The first component involves an apparent medical-like expertise centred around the malfunctioning of a vital part of the human body, and backed up by semi-secretive individual consultations (a.k.a. ”eye tests”) in technology-laden back rooms equipped with special chairs not unlike dental torture recliners. These personal analysis units are usually shrouded in seriousness, and I can still remember when the (most often male) opticians wore white pseudo-medical lab coats to emphasise the aura of treatment professionalism (and the markups this supposedly validates).

I’ve worn glasses nearly all my life. I always had the feeling that these back-office functions are hidden away from – and conceptually divorced from – the retail area out front. By contrast, the focal point here always seems to be consumer issues of taste, design, personal appearance and – let’s admit it – personal vanity, and the decor is very different. What’s on display here are the frames alone – in serried ranks and with no obvious links to the lenses destined to be mounted in them. In this front-of-house environment where the money is made on sales, the expenditure usually seems to be focused on ambience and displays, and there’s normally a total lack of privacy and (at least until very recently) a distinct lack of technology and gizmos.

No help with big decisions

To me, this seems strange. When I’m actually in an optician’s domain, I’m almost inevitably on the verge of a fairly important decision about my overall appearance and the way the world perceives me and my personality. I don’t think it makes me more vain than the rest to say that’s a fairly big deal. Both existentially and as a fashion victim.

I’m also on teetering on the edge of making a fairly sizeable purchase – designer eyewear with the colour-changing lenses I like and the remedial measures required by mercilessly advancing years somehow never seems to come cheap.

Despite the fact that I and my optically challenged co-sufferers can’t see very much without glasses (and we’re probably transitioning to new specifications for the lenses, anyway) there are rarely any visual aids provided to assist me with these big decisions. There’s nothing to help me compare what I look like with different frames, and there’s nothing to show me what I look like from other people’s viewpoint – the all-important perspective on which both vanity and self-esteem teeter so precariously. Some opticians let you borrow frames to take home and get approval from appropriate significant others, but none have ever suggested taking photos of what I look like with these big-bucks purchases perched on my nose.

In a way, it seems paradoxical that the optician’s sales environment is so devoid of technology – in fact it’s probably one of the lowest-tech retail outlets on any street, and one of the least visually oriented.

Basically, the frameworks of the conventional optician’s retail interface/business model seem pretty much out of kilter with my real needs. I usually end up feeling vaguely uncomfortable about my purchasing decision, and I have to wait a week or so to find out whether or not I’m going to be put out of my misery about whether my expensively purchased new glasses are going to make me look cool – or comical. The existential tension is only resolved when I have to schlepp into town again to pick up my expensive new acquisition/personality cloak, knowing that unfortunately can’t say ”no” if it turns out I’ve shot myself in the foot, eyewear-wise.

Locked in

There thus seem to be two disparate components in the conventional optician’s package. But as a consumer I have no freedom to choose – no optician is going to do the free eye test and then magnanimously watch me walk across the street and lay down my cash in a competitor’s retail receptacle.

But this also means my disease/visual malfunction/bodily deficiency isn’t my own property; I can’t normally get my ”diagnosis” written down so I can take it out of the shop with me. You can’t buy one part of the package without the other. And it bugs me to feel locked into a business model that isn’t in my best interests, and where I have no influence on the outcome.

Approaching from the opposite end

Of course, this doesn’t have very much to do with ie-glasses. Except that it does. ie-glasses just approaches the same dilemma from the other end of the spectrum. They focus on the design aspects of the eyewear, catering to those not satisfied by mainstream eyewear design. They emphasise the distinctiveness of their business model, in which the designer/manufacturer of the frames is in direct contact with the end-user, cutting out multiple middlemen and their big markups. I like their attention to individuality, and I appreciate the focus on helping me get what me and my vanity want, rather than being forced to choose between a few pre-determined ”flavours of the month” from the multinational eyewear industry and its relatively few minions.

But this model still doesn’t solve the techno-medical aspect of this schizophrenic industry identity. The ie-glasses brochure seems to fudge this issue a bit, glossing over the fact that you still have to get your eyes tested by an optician. I haven’t tried, but I doubt that this would be wholly unproblematic.

And the real issue is that I would have to bear the brunt of this commercial fault line. The opticians give the user with an eye problem yet another point of discomfort, rather than addressing the whole situation. And providing a solution.