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Friday, June 25, 2010

Greedy Optometrists Don't Like Competition From The Internet

I have written before about the high price of prescription eyewear. What is essentially two pieces of glasses and a couple of cents worth of plastic around it gets sold for several hundred dollars just because that is what the market will bear. Well, the market decided it would not bear it any more. More and more people turned to online retailers for eyeglasses.

You would think that optometrists would see the writing on the wall and reduce their prices to compete in this changed environment. But that is not the case, at least in the case of some optometrists. A friend of mine recently showed me an online discussion group for optometrists on which these "professionals" posted their opinions on people who ask them for the pupilary distance so that they can get away from their greedy clutches, and buy their glasses online for much cheaper.

It astounded me to read the way these people treat their high prices as entitlements. It was obvious right from the first few comments that all these people cared about was the money. If they were losing business because of this new trend, goes their logic, then they have the right to retaliate using whatever means they have at their disposal. Some of the comments posted on the discussion forum are reproduced below:

"Charge 35.00 to 49.00 for it and give it to them in an encrypted format so that it is only decipherable to you but looks realistic to them. For instance, their pd is 62 ou . so you record it as a derivative of your unique base number . If you base is 100 then their pd is - 38 or give it as a monocular number. If your base is 60 then their pd is + 1 ou . If you used 120 as your base standard then pd becomes 58 binocularly. Your scope measures PD as a base of 0"

Notice how callously this poster suggests they lie to you. Eventually, to make the numbers realistic, they would have to fudge it only by a small, but unknown (to you) number. So, you would actually think it was the correct pupilary distance and use it in filling out an online order for eye wear. Guess what it is going to do to your eyesight though. You think this poster has ever heard of the hippocratic oath of never doing harm first?

"Why would you even entertain and change your business model to accomodate (sic) these people? Notice I didn't say customers. These are NOT your customers. They are searching for the lowest price period. Not wanting to pay $30 for a PD? Please! Ok so how about this? If every ECP refused to provide a PD, even for a fee then I wonder how the unregulated online opticals would be doing?"

So, you go to these people for your eye exam (which by the way, does cost money, and which can not be done online, so these online eye wear retailers are not really a threat to the optometrists' main profession of examining patients' eyes. But now that they have gotten used to bilking their customers for not just writing the prescription for filling it too, they seem to have be having withdrawal symptoms). But that does not make you their customer or patient enough to give you your full prescription. If you don't buy their hyper-inflated glasses, then you are no good to them. Their solution is to band up and refuse to provide you a full prescription so that you can not save money. Nice . . .!

"In my humble opinion, we should ALL absolutely refuse to get involved with servicing, repairing, adjusting, or even touching a pair of eyeglasses that were purchased without the total involvement of an eye care professional from the start of the process… period… never… not even for compensation. If we were all united in this approach, within a few years the word would spread, and patients would begin to realize that whatever little money they thought they were saving by ordering a personalized, medical device over the internet, was money thrown away. We would then see Internet sales dwindle to nothing."

Humble opinion, indeed. While we are at it, why not abolish the internet, and take over the world too? Sounds good to me!

"In our office, a PD is not taken unless the patient is ordering glasses, meaning it's not a regular measurement performed as part of an eye exam. If the patient wants us to provide that service (the act of taking the measurement), we do it for a charge, just like all the other tests and measurements we perform. For our fee, we will also verify the Rx once it has been filled, if the patient wants to show their sheepish face again after obviously taking their business elsewhere. "

This is a nice, subtle, and lucrative redefinition of what an eye exam and accompanying prescription are supposed to contain. Why not charge separately for each number and plus or minus sign on the prescription too? And it goes without saying that if a patient is not wearing a ludicrously over-priced pair of glasses sold by this optometrist, their face would only look sheepish, no question about it. I wonder what my employer would think if I started charging them by the line for code I write . . .

"I once had a person who tried to cover his true motives so hard I was all happy and cheery and said "We don't charge anything for an eye test!"

What he didn't know is that times were so slow in store we didn't have anything better to do.
I did a complete eye test and managed to keep her in the exam room for over 45 minutes!.
When we were done she said: "Ok, thanks can I have a presription?"

And I replied: "That'll be €30,-"
Her getting angry: "But you said an eye test was free of charge?"
I replied, "The test is for free, the prescrtiption isn't unless you buy a pair of glasses." (which is actually the company's policy).
She then left the store ranting about how I wasted her time!

My collegues almost died laughting.

But seriously, a free PD test? That's a no-no. You can take a complete eye exam and pay €30,- or get lost."

Nice. Remember, these are supposed to be professionals, not middle-school pranksters. Most middle-school pranksters wouldn't stoop to such levels of immaturity, but that is another post for another day . . .

"I tell them something like: "Sorry, but I cannot give you the measurements to go and buy your glasses on line." Then I explain that we are in business to sell glasses ourselves, not to facilitate purchase elsewhere. Of course I don't use the word "facilitate", because it seems like many of our patients are truly not smarter than a 5th grader. "

Ooh, another gem. This brainerd has a pretty high opinion about the brain power of his customers, you can tell! When the customer pay him $150 for a pair of $5 glasses, I am sure he becomes a genius, but when he does not satisfy this optometrist's greed, he has the brain-power of a 5th grader!!

You see a doctor because you trust the doctor has your best interests at heart. It goes to the very core of the doctor-patient relationship. How can you trust a professional when the professional is looking out only for himself and not for you? How would you feel if your regular doctor refused to write you a prescription for your drugs unless you bought the drugs from his own over-priced pharmacy? Would you trust the judgment of such a doctor to even write out the prescription for the correct drug rather than a more expensive drug that does not actually address your problem? Similarly, would you trust these optometrists not to change your prescription every time you go to them for a check-up just because it more lucrative for them that way?

Is the solution regulatory? Should state licensing bodies require optometrists to write out full prescriptions as part of every eye exam? Should they force optometrists to not own eyeglass stores (that is a bit like doctors all owning their own pharmacies) so that the temptation to mix the two separate lines of businesses (examining patients and selling eyeglasses) does not even exist?

Do you have experiences with eye care professionals who have become testy with you for not buying their over-priced glasses even though you have paid them plenty for the actual eye test itself? Sound off in the comments, and let others know how you have dealt with it. What do you think is the solution here? Should online retailers like Zenni set up deals with brick and mortar stores to measure pupilary distances for a small fee, with the online retailer picking up part of the tab? Should online retailers band together to set up storefronts for the express purpose of servicing their products, including measuring pupilary distances for their potential customers?


Anonymous said...

I do not think all optometrist are greedy. If I was an optometrist and with all the lawsuits going on, a person came with a cheap online pair of glasses that didn't fit, broke easier and they could'nt see, they blame it on the person, not the online company, plus the OD or optician has liability issues. Eyewear anymore is not just 2 pieces of plastic and a couple pieces of metal. - Just remember you get what you pay for!

Anonymous said...

As someone who supplies the optical industry in the UK I feel I should explain that compensation given to optometrists does not cover the costs of the time, equipment, building, staff, the legal requirement to keep records, liability insurance etc involved in delivering exceptional eye care services. The discussions you describe are symptoms of a funding gap in the delivery of optical care. It is a situation brought about by a lack of funding from central government causing the situation where profits have to be made on spectacles to cover the costs of delivering high quality front-line eye care. Of course, online retailers have none of the overhead of delivering the eye care that is borne exclusively by the optometrist - and so it is reasonable that optometrists act to ensure they can continue to deliver the eye care the entered the profession to provide. It may be argued that it is these online retailers that are those who seek to make bucks without the responsibilities eye care provision demands.
As a distributor of niche eye wear I agree with the person who last commented. Quality cannot be provided for nothing - some spectacles involve over 300 metal manipulations with a high level of hand work - even in the acetate which is often designed with exclusive colors and patterns. If you're passionate about fashion, quality, comfort, lens technology, your look and how others perceive you (which can directly affect you business development!) then it pays to wear exclusive unique and beautiful eye wear delivered by a professional who can advise you the best solution to your optical and lifestyle needs. It can be helpful to remember that cheap is not always best value.

Anonymous said...

Adding to the above comments, I am an Optometrist with two optical outlets, you have hit the nail on the head by stating the operation costs need to be factored into the cost of the spectacles. My stores are in Africa, and my operation costs per hour amount to $250-00 per store. Yes , for an 8 hour day we need to sell a huge amount of spectacles just to meet our costs per day that being $2000.
I employ, 20 staff across the two outlets.
If I were to compete with online stores , my volumes would have to increase 20 to 30 times at the current staff compliment. In order manage the increase in volume I would have to work longer hours and employ more staff. This means my running costs escalate making the need for higher volumes greater. It will all spiral out of control - where the end point will be?.

Now lets consider the scenario of a contracting optical retail industry. If all optical outlets and chains shut their doors - who will be left examining your childrens eyes , or dispensing the spectacles OR measuring the PDs or adjust the online specs when they falling off your face or repairing them.....?

Maybe one or two stores will stay open , in the hope that they will survive by "picking up" customers from the stores which closed down. That would still mean an increase in staff and working hours which in turn means increase in costs. Salaries in those outlets would increase due to added pressure on demand.
Business and pricing models are determined by micro economics , as much as we would love to believe that macro economics or global macro economics will decide the price , its not feasible. One cannot purchase an average 4 bed house in US for the same price as in Africa or the Asia. There are higher costs in US , higher salaries and more statutory requirments making the running costs of anything higher in US and Eurozone.
So before you bleat about the "greedy optometrists" consider the costs that the outlets carry such as rent, staff cost, equipment costs (upto $500 000 to set up a mid level outlet) , material costs and the carry costs of product.

The second consideration being , a good lens doesnt come cheap you have to consider the purity of material , design of lens and quality of coatings. These all add to cost. What does it help paying $20 for a pair of specs when you are replacing then monthly due to poor lens design and coatings.

Thirdly, if an average (good pair) of specs sets you back $500 , you should be getting a good life span of 24 months , that makes it $20 per month. What do you spend on mobile calls per month or fuel or Bandwidth. Without the clear comfortable vision you wouldnt be able to appreciate those luxuries.

Lastly, an optometrist/optician or store owner rarely earns the BIG BUCKS the market perceives. My salary is $3000 pm , I have it on good authority that a good optometrist can earn $10000pm and thats subject to their geographical location in US. If you contrast that with the salaries paid in mobile network sector or in IT or other professionals ie lawyers ($200k pa) , Doctors ($200k pa) or accountants , where does it leave the optometrist. He is better off opening a hair-salon!

Blogannath said...

I don't disagree with you on any of the points you have made. Not being an optometrist myself, I do not know what your costs and revenues look like. If there is a gap between the cost of providing eye examinations and the revenue you make from it, that should be addressed by increasing the cost of the eye care appropriately. The internet is here to stay, and everybody knows that everything is cheaper on the internet than in brick and mortar stores. So, rather than being dragged into this age kicking and screaming, perhaps optometrists should bring integrity back to the business by raising the prices of eye care to reflect their true costs and actively encourage their patients to buy their spectacles from the cheapest source (the internet).

Given the open nature of the internet, optometrists should also be careful about what they post on the internet. The comments I have highlighted in my post are not professional and do not reflect well on the profession even though only a few individuals made them. When you open a barrel of apples, the bad ones in it are going to make the whole barrel stink over the good aroma of the rest of the good apples in it. Embracing the internet should also include more education and understanding about how the medium works. If you don't want your comments published on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper, do not publish them on the internet!

L. said...

I totally agree that the cost of the eye exams should be raised, not factored into selling a product so that customers feel like they are being forced to buy from their optometrists. I would rather pay another $100 for my eye exam than have to pay an inflated $500 for a pair of glasses (yes, my last pair in 2007 cost me that and I'm not into designer brands either.)

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