Viewpoint: Diary of a spectacle designer
Tom Davies ponders the future of independent practice
Author: Tom Davies
These are strange times in our industry. As I flew back from Munich having attended Opti, I took stock of everything I’ve seen these past few post-pandemic months.
After the success in New York, I mobilised the troops to attend Opti. ‘Tom, it’s only three weeks away, there isn’t enough time.’ Three weeks later, I was standing on my lovely booth in Munich feeling very proud of what we can achieve when we set our minds to it.
As the show moved to a new slot in May, half the brands decided not to exhibit because they had shown all their new products earlier in the year. The absence of the big dogs like EssilorLuxottica and Safilo made the show feel like a niche eyewear show. There were only four halls instead of the six and the halls were sometimes empty, which was reminiscent of the early days of lockdown.
However, having designed, printed and posted 8,000 golden tickets to northern European opticians (some only got them on the morning of the show) we were always busy. The golden ticket invited you, Willy Wonka-style, to come to our stand and cook your own acetate material in my acetate kitchen. The resulting acetate can be made into a frame should we do business together. It’s a compelling offer and without this, I’m quite sure the show would have been an economic disaster for us.
I only saw two opticians from the UK. Michelle Beach from Park Vision, who I always enjoy boozing with at tradeshows, and Norma Davies, a potential new account for us from Wales, who told me how she reinvented her business over lockdown and transformed her sales. I could write a whole column on this but I won’t be giving away their secrets.
However, that was it. I’ve got used to a growing list of opticians from the UK coming to Munich. And the Brits weren’t the only ones staying away. None of my Dutch, Danish or Swedish accounts were in attendance as far as I could see. Some booths stood empty for hours on end. Some booths were full and bursting with customers. It was hard to make out what was going on.
I chatted with Rob Morris from William Morris (who was also busy) and we concluded that despite the lack of people, the ones that were at the show were there to do business.
Almost everyone we spoke to said, ‘I’m looking for something new,’ and that didn’t change if you were an independent, a distributor or a group. You might think everyone would always say that but they don’t.
The ‘slow Sunday’ where we are normally wishing we had brought the ping pong table became our busiest day. All Opti rules had been turned on their head as opticians who are usually off skiing when the show is held in winter there with their full teams on something close to a company bonding day. Germans don’t tend to walk around the hall with champagne in their hands, that’s usually the Americans, and it was a quite a nice atmosphere.
One rather noticeable trend jumped out at me during the show. When I was in New York, I spoke to a group who was buying up stores, usually $700k+ turnover stores. The owners stay on to run the business. I’m sure you all know of the fantastic success of the Hakim Group in the UK, who are doing much the same thing. At Opti, I met the German equivalent. Practices with a turnover of €800k or more are being snapped up and joining a group, while retaining their founders. This one has 120 members now. Is this the future of the independent optician? There are shifting sands afoot in our industry all over the world and it feels like it’s happening simultaneously without anyone noticing.
There is a new set of rules for suppliers like me to take notice of. Margins will be squeezed, business models will change and how will this affect the traditional independent who is not part of one of these mega groups?
I haven’t worked out if it will be good or bad for me just yet. But the troops will be quick to mobilise and with a spot of luck and hard work, I’ll be feeling very proud of what we achieve.