How Your Optical Dispensing Services May Beat Online Retailers

For the past few months, I’ve seen primetime commercials for Zenni Optical eyeglasses from $6.95. Since startups advertising on primetime TV is a clear signal of a venture-backed company, I decided to check them out. Following a short online search, I discovered that Zenni was founded in San Francisco in 2003 by two scientists. The lab is rumored to be in China.

Zenni Optical was built upon the following principles, and is dedicated to fulfilling them:

  • To provide the most affordable eyeglasses to people all over the world
  • To provide the highest-quality optical lenses to our customers
  • To make it easy to order eyeglasses online
  • To provide exceptional customer support

With Rx in hand, I set out to understand how this optical dispensing experience differs from big box and visiting an independent OD, and what we can learn from it.

An Optical Dispensing Study into Zenni Optical

The ExperimentOptical dispensing tips for competing against Zenni Optical

My first observation is that $6.95 seems too good to be true. However, there are more than fifty frames at $6.95, and many of them have 4 to 4.5-star reviews. I am that person that is incapable of choosing a frame without serious optician intervention, so I start off from a place of skepticism. It was the low-price that got me there in the first place though, so the marketing tactic works.

I gave up on my first attempt after choosing all the elements for a progressive; the minimum PD was 35 and mine is a 32. It was only through sheer willpower that I got my second order placed (distance only) as I’ll explain below. (I did try the chat service and was told to select dual PD.)

After browsing through some frames, which seem to align with the selection of a big box retailer, I was quickly overwhelmed. Too many choices will often result in no decision, yet I persisted, determined to complete checkout. I also did this with a stopwatch to understand how long it takes. About 10 minutes in, I found some frames (model 112416) for $32.95 that would potentially make good sunglasses for the pool.

You can upload a picture of your face to their fit finder app and “try on” frames virtually. The first thing you need to know is your PD so you can align the crosshairs over your pupils. The try on feature seems very imprecise. They have inline help since practically no consumer is going to know what a PD is. They even have a ruler you can print out to measure the distance. What could possibly go wrong?

The Obstacles

Overall, I would say the explanations of the different fields on the prescription were easy to understand. However, they did not line up exactly with the paper Rx my OD gave me. As mentioned above, I entered my progressive Rx but couldn’t save it because they don’t support my PD. If in doubt, you can send your Rx to Zenni, and they will add it to the platform for you. I’m just guessing that entering the prescription is the first obstacle for most consumers that causes them to abandon the site.

  • Frame Measurements

The next big obstacle is understanding if this frame will even fit me. I’m confronted with a bunch of measurements. Again, the impulse is to give up, and that’s just what I did the first time I tried to order here. They do have an online chat that can take a message after hours. I tried this, and the agent was both responsive and helpful.

  • Choosing Lenses

Now it gets difficult. It’s time to choose lenses. I’m getting a bit annoyed with all the options. If anything, your patients will appreciate your team’s skills a lot more after going through this on their own.

My shopping cart shows $32.95 for frames, 1.57 Mid-Index Single-vision lenses are free. They are flagging the free ones as recommended. Who am I to argue? If I disagreed, there would be many, many more options.

I’ve next selected the standard lens tint of 80% gray. It’s really overwhelming at this point. There are no fewer than ten more types of lenses I could pick. They have a handy “?” symbol to learn more, but what consumer is going to read all this, and even understand all the options.

On to the next page where I get lens coatings. I want the blue mirror finish, fingerprint resistant, $19.95 for this. For those playing the home version, my shopping cart comes in at $57.85, and I’m 35 minutes into the process.

I have a 10% discount coupon (signup10) for giving them my email address. I strongly recommend you implement the same tactic in your marketing and then use it to email your patients pictures of the latest frames in your practice and bonus eyecare tips.

I proceed through checkout, and as I am about to hit the “Place your Order” button, I see that the glasses include anti-scratch coating, UV protection, a hard case, a cleaning cloth, and I only need to pay shipping on the first pair. Additional items in the same order would ship free. I’m too exhausted to shop for a second pair at this point, and the offer for a second pair does not appear until checkout.

Here come the terms and conditions. I scroll straight to the return policy and see that I can return them for 50% cash back or 100% store credit within 30 days. There is an arbitration clause. 

I choose PayPal, hold my breath, and submit my order. Start to finish; it was nearly 40 minutes. The most challenging aspects were picking a frame, a lens, coatings, and entering my Rx. In other words, just about all of it. Shout out to all the opticians who’ve helped me navigate this process over the years.

The Observation

What we can learn:

  • For an optical consumer experience to be mainstream, the choices need to be minimized. Warby Parker has perfected this. Keep this in mind when designing your own eCommerce site.
  • The first step in the workflow should be to upload the prescription. Zenni trusts you to enter your own values. You could have an ancient Rx and still order glasses. Because the fields will not necessarily match the Rx generated by your OD, there are plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. This could result in a very high rate of returns and customer dissatisfaction. Zenni is overcoming this with an embedded online support chat feature.
  • Capturing and using email is important as all business-to-consumer online vendors know. Coupon codes are effective. Promotions combined with eye health tips can keep patients coming back.
  • The online model works with a fairly generic frame and lens set. The most fashion-forward options will not likely be found at an online retailer. If your patient demographic supports it, make sure your buyer is up-to-date on the current styles and trends.
  • Consumers don’t really understand the true value that optometrists and opticians provide. You need to educate them.
  • In terms of channel options for eyeglass ordering, this is the most complex option I’ve observed. You could draw the conclusion that low price comes with a lot of complexity.
  • Quality and education, or lack thereof, is what sets apart the experience online vs. in your office. While the FAQ at Zenni is great, it’s a lot for a consumer to process.
  • Zenni runs an affiliate program as well that runs through an affiliate management service called Pepperjam. Their affiliates earn 4% on a returning customer and 8% on a new sale. I suspect the intent here is to promote their company through mommy and lifestyle blogs to expand their reach. It makes sense, because even a venture-backed company can afford only so much TV advertising.
  • Zenni’s mission statement says it all, they intend for this to be a global business. That’s an interesting notion given that most of the industry operates at the local level.

Does Zenni compete with the independent ODs? Absolutely, because uneducated consumers will not know the difference between a $6.95 pair of frames and a $300 pair. Do they compete with big box retail optical departments? Absolutely. Here it is harder to see the value of the retail optical store since the frame selections can be similar.

For $57.02 I now have some new sunglasses on their way in the next three weeks. In my next post, I’ll review how this experiment turned out and what I think of my $57 sunglasses.

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