We have been hearing for years that the death of brick-and-mortar retail is at the doorstep. We’ve been hearing how online giants like Amazon will slowly and uncomfortably kill traditional retail. We have even heard how a combination of online sales and market consolidation would wipe out traditional eyewear outlets. None of the predictions have come to fruition, and they likely never will.
Eyewear continues to thrive as a traditional retail enterprise for a number of reasons. We will get to those reasons in just a minute. In the meantime, we should briefly address why ominous predictions of the death of brick-and-mortar retail persist.
First is something we can affectionately refer to as the ‘Amazon effect’. It has been long believed that as Amazon brings more of the retail sector under its control there will be no need to have brick-and-mortar stores dotting city streets and suburban strip malls. Everybody will simply buy everything they need online. But if that is true, why is Amazon now tinkering with the idea of opening their own brick-and-mortar outlets?
The second thing to consider – which is more specific to the eyewear industry – is the fact that Luxottica has spent the better part of the last decade consolidating the eyewear industry by buying up one company after another. Luxottica’s march to dominance was supposed to be the death knell of smaller retail operations. So why do traditional outlets, including Luxottica’s own Pearl Vision and LensCrafters, still operate? Why do independent brands like those owned by Olympic Eyewear still compete so successfully?
The In-Person Experience
There are two basic reasons brick-and-mortar eyewear retail will continue to plug along virtually unabated. The first has to do with the fact that online shopping cannot possibly replicate the in-person experience. Everyone who has ever shopped online knows that.
The thing about eyewear is that it is intensely personal. Whether a customer is looking for a new pair of prescription lenses or the latest designer sunglasses, they want to actually go see their choices in person. They want to handle the frames; they want to try them on; they want to see what they look like in the mirror – none of which is possible when purchasing online.
Yes, there is a certain segment of the buying public willing to buy cheap sunglasses online without actually handling them or trying them on. But these are customers paying $5-$10 per pair. Someone who is going to spend upwards of $100 for designer eyewear will insist on an in-person experience.
Shipping Adds to the Cost
There is a trade-off that comes with online shopping that very few people are willing to talk about publicly. That trade-off is the cost of shipping. Big retail giants may have gotten away with free shipping in the past, but things are changing. They simply cannot continue to offer rock-bottom prices and free shipping at the same time. Therefore, customers will either pay more for their purchases in order to get free shipping, or they will pay for shipping in exchange for lower prices. Either way you slice it, shipping adds to the cost of retail purchases.
If a customer can find that same pair of designer sunglasses at a local outlet within a few dollars of what it costs to purchase online, you can bet he or she is going with the local outlet. Buying locally offers instant gratification and a competitive price point with no shipping involved.
Regardless of how big online retailing becomes, it will never be a legitimate threat to brick-and-mortar eyewear retailing. Eyewear is one industry that needs brick-and-mortar retailing to thrive.