By Brian P. Dunleavy Chain retailers and independent optical shop owners rarely cross the competitive divide and share ideas. However, each group can learn a lot from the other – particularly when it comes to marketing spectacle lenses.
Chain retailers across Canada have achieved great success by developing “house-brand” (or private-label) lens lines that make their spectacle products appealing to consumers – and emphasize design features and benefits in a way that’s easy to understand. These brand names may highlight the thin, lightweight characteristics of high-index or polycarbonate lenses or the visual benefits of freeform lenses; they may extol the virtues of ultraviolet light protection offered by polarized sunlenses or the convenience of photochromic lenses. As a result, consumers shopping at chains that use this technique know what they’re buying.
David Watson, an optician and instructor at the BC College of Optics in Vancouver, remembers running an independent optical shop and fielding questions about chain-store brands. “Clients asked if we carried a particular product and we’d have to explain that we could get the same material, but couldn’t call it by that brand name. It drove us nuts.”
For independents, to use the same branding approach as their chain counterparts is complicated by the fact that they purchase lenses either directly from the manufacturer or through wholesale laboratories. Because independents don’t have the same “buying power” as chains, they don’t have the same opportunity to negotiate the creation of their own private-label brands with vendors.
Still, it’s not impossible. For specialty products – such as prescription wrap sunlenses or tinted lenses designed for specific purposes (shooting/hunting or driving) – independents can work with niche lens manufacturers and/or labs to develop their own brands. They can also work with manufacturers and labs that specialize in commodity (usually imported) lens products that are not branded and can therefore be coupled with other products (coatings and treatments) to create store brands. These products are usually less expensive than brand-name products made by larger manufacturers and they can be sold as part of a tiered pricing strategy to clients seeking more affordable options. Depending on the make-up of their client base, independent optical shops can find success with this approach. Another way independents can “brand” spectacle lenses, again using tiered pricing, is by incorporating the good/better/best model of bundling lenses and treatments together – and attaching a catchy name to these bundles. For example, such an approach for progressive lenses might include a “standard” progressive design with anti-reflective (AR) coating in a conventional plastic material or polycarbonate (the “good” option), a standard progressive with AR in a high-index plastic material (the “better” option), and a freeform progressive with AR in a high-index plastic material (the “best” option). Here, independents are branding the bundles, not the lens products. They can still use the established lens brands – especially if they are recognizable to consumers – to make the bundles more enticing. The learning opportunities between chains and independents don’t go in only one direction, however. While chains may have a branding advantage, independents have an inventory advantage. The products sold in chain locations are often based on decisions made at the corporate office, not determined by the demands or buying habits of the local client base. As a result, a chain location in an affluent area might have too much “commodity” (or low-priced) frame and lens inventory, and vice versa. This is a problem some proactive chain retail executives have been trying to address – and an advantage more independents need to leverage. “Independent stores like the one I managed for over 10 years can order just about anything – as long as they’re willing to start an account,” Watson explains. “I used four labs to order lenses, depending on what product I needed, and we belonged to [a buying group]. But as an optician in a chain store, your hands are tied. You have to convince clients to buy a product you have available.”