Retail revolution?

Well, just as the 2005 BCLA commences, it seems that the rumours were not wrong about Tesco (at least) planning on entering the contact lens supply market. Last week's optician article outlined the commercial impact the venture may have on contact lens prices. A brochure obtained from Tesco contains the process to be followed by the 'customer' and prices of the lenses it will supply from its pharmacies, by post or online (at Tesco says it will also supply contact lenses from its 21 optician stores (that's how many the website says it has). That must be immensely comforting for the optometrists and opticians it currently employs.

While the internet and mail order has been with us for some time now, the impact of supermarket or pharmacy supply has yet to be felt. Many contact lens wearers who are interested only in price (as opposed to service) will already have used these modalities of supply. What remains to be seen is how many elect to buy their lenses along with their groceries from the supermarket or with their under-arm deodorant from the likes of Boots the Chemist.

On the inside back page of its brochure, Tesco states there are 'three easy options': phone, internet and freepost. For the phone option the quoted 'lines open' times seem to differ from those given on the phone message. That must be reassuring. For the internet, the website states:
'The contact lens website launch has been delayed. The launch will be advertised via the home page and in store - we look forward to offering you contact lenses at everyday low prices.'

Seems the in-store launch may have been a bit premature. Rumours of point of sale material having to be hurriedly taken down abound. For the 'freepost', this is taken care of by the tear-off strip in the brochure, where it states:
'Don't worry if you don't have your current specification and only have your box of current lenses. Simply supply the name, town and phone number of your optician and, with your permission, Tesco Opticians can verify your specification. Once verified, we can send you your lenses.'

This is going to be interesting from a data protection perspective, as currently many opticians feel unable to supply spectacle prescription details without the patient contacting the prescriber either in person or in writing. I wonder how they will feel about this further intervention. Interestingly, careful perusal of the Section 60 Order shows that there is a specific onus on the supplier to verify the prescription with the fitter, but no onus for the fitter to comply: certainly not for free.

Also, in many cases it will be interesting to hear of the challenges such suppliers may have in attempting to verify anything other than the original specification with the fitter (as expressly stated in the Act, as opposed to another employee of the practice in which the lenses were fitted).
Another remarkable twist is in the small print in the Tesco brochure where it states in the section prior to the customer's signature: 'I agree that Tesco Opticians make no warranties as to my suitability to wear contact lenses.' This is interesting in the light of the further onus in the Act placed upon the non-registered supplier to 'make arrangements for the individual to receive aftercare'. Maybe it is covered elsewhere in Tesco's small print; except the only mention of aftercare is where it says: 'When fitting you for your lenses, your optician will have advised you of the need for regular check-ups. These visits make sure your eyes stay healthy and your lenses stay comfortable.'

Does that sound like 'making arrangements to you'? It doesn't to me. It is even highly doubtful that Tesco Opticians can reasonably provide for aftercare in the amount of sales they must be hoping for, out of their (quoted) 21 stores. At least Boots have more branches of their opticians than that (for the time being at least).

Registration issues
It is to be hoped the GOC read this column and request appropriate and adequate reassurance from Tesco Opticians ahead of the July 1 launch. This might save a lot of heartache for all. For I doubt the GOC will have the stomach to take on Tesco afterwards.

I wonder which poor registered soul is going to be the fall guy, generally directing the sale for Tesco? If the standard of its brochure is anything to go by, it is doubtful that being involved in the management of the supply chain is going to be a hugely reassuring process. One wonders if it will be aware just how vulnerable its continued registration with the GOC may be.

So let the battle commence. The profession will inevitably polarise into those intending to cut prices in an attempt to retain the price-conscious punter and into those who will charge meaningful professional fees, while offering the complete service. I believe there is room for both. In fact, there has to be if the Tescos of this world are to survive. Who else is going to provide all the specifications and all the aftercare? Tesco clearly will not.