Viewpoint: Diary of a spectacle designer
Tom Davies gazes into the future of optics after being incapacitated while wearing a VR headset
Author: tom Davies
I find myself typing this month’s column into my phone lying on my back on my wife’s yoga mat. I’ve been here for five days now. Had a little accident while wearing an Oculus VR headset.
Consequently I currently have lots of time on my hands. So, I’ve been thinking about how the eyewear industry has changed since I started out, then, musing about where it might be going.
I remember little workshops in the backs of practices and watching crafty opticians and technicians adjusting arm lengths, changing base curves, mending split rims and resinking hinges. I would travel around Britain with my little sales bag and marvel at the goings on.
As I lie here in throbbing pain, I’m wondering when that all changed. It was a gradual slide towards a new kind of optics. People didn’t need opticians to keep their glasses going for another three years. Increased competition meant broken frames were replaced under warranty and, besides, customers got used to being able to buy 2 for 1 for £90.
I remember one of my best UK accounts getting rid of his glazing machine about 10 years ago. ‘It doesn’t make sense to buy a new machine and pay someone to operate it,’ he told me. However, I think he lost something intangible. Did the customer notice?
I think I arrived in eyewear at the end of one great era and witnessed the transition to the next. This second era probably peaked in 2018. The optical experience morphed from old school skills as the elite opticians filled their stores with fancy new OCT machines and fundus cameras and the chains reluctantly followed. The independent became champion of unique expensive brands while the chains became champions of not so unique and less expensive brands. Both found an appreciative audience.
Opticians became more like a traditional retailer with a unique selling point (eye exams) and our stores were filled with frame stylists rather than seasoned experts in frame construction and lenses.
Freeform lens technology lowered the skill levels needed for dispensing and handling eyewear, and China’s factories enabled an explosion of new inexpensive frames and brands.
So what’s going to change in 15 years time? I’m going to make a bold prediction that by 2036, 90% of frame sales will be selected for customers by an algorithm.
I’ve had glimpses of the changes to come. In New York, 18 months ago, I visited one of my customers and he wanted me to try out his remote eye test. I went in a broom cupboard and sat in the chair. There, on a screen, was a real eye doctor in another state looking like a teacher in one of my kids’ Google Meets classes, instructing me how to use the phoropter head. Seemed like a crazy idea to me then. Seems like quite a good idea now.
A month, later I saw a chain in Japan with a pick-and-mix style shopping experience where you selected your frame for £10, popped your head in the auto refractor and took the frame and ticket to the till. You could pick your glasses up 30 minutes later for £30.
This is a transition phase. In 15 years, why even bother with that? I’ve also seen some frame ‘try-on’ apps that predict which frames look good on you. They are rubbish – for now. I bet I could teach the algorithm everything I know in half a day. Then all we will need is Instagram or Snapchat plug-ins selling you fast frame fashion. Complete with lenses for £10.
The optician business model in the UK currently relies on our stores filled with frame stylists and regulations mean you can’t dispense from auto refractors. What happens when Samsung’s next selfie camera can give you a prescription?
We should do well to fear this industry evolution and, to prosper in it, we need to embrace change. Right now, I think the priority is to be sure we are offering unique services to our customers. In particular we need to be reaching them digitally as soon as we can.
To find our place in this brave new optical world quickly is key. The eyewear equivalent of Amazon is going to gobble up all our business if we are not careful. 2021 is the year of change and the future will be here faster than we expected.
It’s the same for all businesses and retail in particular maintains a fixed mindset where they can only imagine one way of doing business, one set of customer needs, one way of operating.
An optician that is comfortable with change, that expects it and is designed to deal with it will continue to be successful not because of a specific set of favourable circumstances but because of what they do.
I’m conscious this all sounds a bit grumpy. Maybe it’s just time for my next round of ibuprofen. Oh, and if you are thinking of getting an Oculus VR (and it is epic) just don’t try to compete with your 14-year-old on Beat Saber as it will end in pain