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The end of high street opticians

LONDON, Jan. 27, 2014 /PRNewswire-iReach/ -- The current high street model for optometry is bowing under pressure, with more and more practices closing down every year. The emphasis on sales rather than eye care is no good for anyone - opticians are being squeezed out by a business model that doesn't work, and consumers are being sold a false perception of the value of proper eye examinations.

(Photo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20140127/MN52948)

Opticians have become increasingly sales-driven - trying to attract customers with discounts, promotions and low prices. The majority of staff are unqualified sales assistants, and performance is measured by conversion rates. Clinical care has been devalued thanks to free eye test campaigns, and professionals are being pressured into spending shorter and shorter chair time with their patients.

In a bid to survive, many opticians are becoming more clinically specialised - studying for additional qualifications and/or investing in expensive technology in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors. But the cost of all this has to be met somehow, for example by charging more for examinations - and that is counter-intuitive to the current high street model.

Another threat to opticians is the availability of automated eye-testing technology. Steffan Rygaard, Founder and Managing Director of Visiondirect.co.uk, says: "Self-testing equipment and software are continuously being developed. An eye test requires both objective and subjective results, and both are not far off being completed by automation. You can download software to your mobile device and generate a prescription which is good enough to know your reading correction. Automated testing kiosks and booths are already in existence. High street opticians could end up as glorified salespeople."

But there is a major concern about this technology. Many eye diseases and other conditions can only be detected by a qualified optician through a comprehensive eye examination, carrying out vital tests that simply cannot be replicated by a machine. Opticians play a crucial role in primary care and the public depend on them to detect conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and age-related macula degeneration. In an increasingly ageing population, these are all becoming more widespread.

In the context of providing the essential healthcare function of early detection, diagnosis, treatment and management, it's clear that compromising the value of opticians is not in the public's best interests. But if opticians are to uphold their profession of looking after the health of people's eyes, then the business model is going to have to change. At the moment it's just not viable; opticians and the institutions representing them have mixed interests.

Consumer power plays a huge part in the current business model. Rygaard says: "The power of the consumer is far stronger than any governing force in the UK marketplace. Margins will be eroded from all angles. Contact lenses, and in fact all eye wear, will become cheaper and cheaper. The consumer wants to pay the lowest price and search engines, comparison sites and forums will catalyse this forward. Competition will mean that companies will continuously try to buy products from the lowest sources."

But if this is allowed to continue, the situation will become completely unsustainable. Could separating the clinical and commercial aspects of optometry be the answer? This would allow high standards of patient care to continue in a clinical setting - off the high street - and retailers to compete separately on prices and sales.

Rygaard certainly believes that there is a need for change: "I don't see how the future high street optician can compete without majorly evolving. The optician needs to be much more specialised. The future means that testing and screening becomes clinical and less high street. The product will be a fight for margins and slimming down your cost base. On a time scale, I predict it is likely to change within 10 years."

By separating the clinical and retail practices, the future of optometry could be much brighter for everyone. Rygaard says: "I believe the opticians and their services should to be protected to the extent that they are valued by the public, and profitable enough as standalone service providers without the need for retail/commercial sales to enter the equation. This is a win/win situation for the public and the professionals."

Written by Parag Patel for Visiondirect.co.uk

Media Contact: Gareth Woods, Visiondirect.co.uk, 0044-(0)8447454545, info@visiondirect.co.uk

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SOURCE VisionDirect.co.uk

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