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Physical Stores Can Thrive As Online Retail Grows … Here’s How

Online eyewear sales will only ever get so much of our business.

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ON ITS SURFACE, the rise of the online eyewear industry is directly connected to the decline of brick-and-mortar. While the vast majority of eyeglasses are still sold the “old-fashioned” way, with patients receiving an eye exam in an office and selecting frames in the dispensary, online sales have steadily increased year over year. In 2017, 8 million pairs of prescription eyeglasses were sold online, totaling about 4.2 percent of the market. That growth is likely to explode once consumers are able to access online eye exams. How can physical stores compete?

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Retail Trends are Cyclical

I took my daughter shopping recently, only to gasp at a row of acid-washed jeans like the ones I owned in 1985. Eventually, it all comes back. The same is true of retail sales environments. We’re now seeing the rise of highly differentiated local retail settings where once developers cynically shut-down vibrant, community-based shopping centers in favor of cookie-cutter, big-box retail fronts.

Really, it’s all about local relevance. Shopping experiences are as much about necessity as they are about community. We live in a café society, where people seek the casual ebb and flow of walking down the sidewalk, stopping for food and drinking, gazing through the windows of unique storefronts and enjoying colorful streetscapes and open-air spaces. In the suburbs, especially, retail success demands attention to the location, how the business is differentiated, what community needs it satisfies and how successfully the concept is executed.

An Optical for the Community

When Dr. Joe Borden and I sat down to redesign our optical we not only wanted to transform the space visually, but to create a sense of community through design. All too often, patients sit in a lobby with their head buried in a smart phone, waiting to be called back for their eye exam. Instead, we wanted the space to be shoppable, inviting and inherently social.

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We converted the receptionist’s desk into a coffee bar. Patients could come in, whip up a cappuccino and pull up a chair to chat, or browse our frame collection with a mug in hand. We eschewed a “waiting room” lined with chairs. Who likes to sit and wait? Instead, we offered window seating so patients could gaze at the storefronts and passersby on Washington Ave. We hung paintings by local artists, and opened up the floor plan.

In an age of technological enablement, we brought the buying experience back to the values of the community by mixing the social and the sustainable with customer service and a vibrant, unique retail design. Our business became intimate, locally optimized and differentiated. It worked. We are busier now than ever before, attracting new patients and keeping long-time customers engaged.

No matter how hard vested interests try to force us away from economic gravity, eventually the immutable desires of people in local markets bring the pendulum back to sustainability. In some ways, online retailing may bring us back to a more interesting and relevant blend of retail alternatives.

Rebecca Furuta holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health Policy from the University of Colorado Boulder, and works as a sports vision specialist and ABOC/NCLE optician at Avenue Vision in Golden with Dr. Joe Borden, with whom she co-founded the eco eyewear lifestyle brand, Yeux & Eye (yeuxandeye.com). Email her at [email protected]

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