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Why retail is tougher today

07/05/2018
By Chris Peterson
The rise of multi-channel retailing means there are more demands than ever on small practices to satisfy growing consumer preferences for customised experiences. CHRIS PETERSEN reports.

Retail is retail. It’s still the process of selling products to the end consumer and it’s been that way since the dawn of commerce; however, if this really is the case and it’s essentially the same business, why are so many retailers, including optometry businesses, struggling? The reason is the consumer.

Sure, the end result of selling products to consumers hasn’t changed that much but the levels of complexity have increased dramatically and it’s the consumer who is driving this change. Customer behaviour has changed; their expectations are now driving demand for complexity, systems and services that were never envisioned when today’s retail stores and shopping centres were built.

Owning or managing a small retail-based business today is not for the feint hearted or those clinging to the past. It’s a very tough business that has grown very complex. Why this is important? Retailers are no longer in the transactional business of selling products.

To survive, they are now competing for relationships with consumers, or in optometry’s case patients, who are demanding levels of service well beyond the product itself. While most of the changes in other consumer categories have been slow to take hold in healthcare, major shifts are beginning thanks to increasing technological change.

Practice owners will be familiar with the popular 4P model – product, place, price and promotion. One cold fact about marketing under the traditional 4P method is that conversations were always one-sided; a retailer/optometrist would tell consumers/patients about products via a one-way channel. Today, the conversations are multi-directional and the business no longer controls the message.

Multi-channel changes it all

Multi-channel shopping is the new consumer ‘normal’. It’s how consumers shop today, buying anytime and everywhere. Shopping has become a process, a purchase journey, not a single sales event.

The fundamental truth of retail today is that consumers have the power – they are the ones driving the change, not the retailers. This power comes from unprecedented flexibility and choice.

Multi-channel changes everything about shopping and retailing:

  • Consumers now shop anytime (24/7/365) and everywhere via mobile devices

  • Consumers are the new Point-of-Sale (POS) because they decide where to buy and how to pay

  • Consumers decide where they take delivery, be it in store or at home

  • Consumers expect to check goods availability online, buy online and then pick up in store

  • If not available on shelf, consumers expect to be able to buy goods online from inside the store

  • In short, consumers expect to have it their way, personalised on their terms

Inherent complexities challenge

To be clear, retailing was always a tough business. My colleague Steve Schiro, says: “Retail is not rocket science; it’s harder!”

"The 4Ps – product, price, place and promotion – have been replaced by rising expectations for the 4Cs – choice, convenience, customised and connected."

He believes that retailing is a business with many moving parts – stores and practices have to manage hundreds, if not thousands, of stock keeping units (SKUs), which have to be tracked across distribution centres and store locations.

How does multi-channel shopping change all of this? The new consumer behaviours that come with multi-channel shopping create higher levels of service expectations and even more levels of complexity. It is no longer about just stores or being successful online.

There are a number of examples of how changes in customer and patient behaviour have made retail in today’s multi-channel world more complex and difficult for small business.

Online and physical have merged

While a majority of consumers still prefer to purchase in store, some research suggests that an overwhelming majority – 87% – shop or search online first. Simply put, consumers don’t differentiate between traditional stores and online sales; it’s all just one stream of shopping experiences.

Customers expect a curated assortment in store, supplemented by a great selection of sizes, colours and other options online; they no longer separate the physical shelf from the virtual shelf as they once did.

This creates a completely new demand on the part of retail-based business operating on the ‘High Street’. Systems must now be able to show virtual inventory in store and be able to show store stock online. The ‘e’ in e-commerce now means everywhere, every day.

It means selling products selected from both physical stock and the virtual shelf. It is far more complex to plan, manage and execute an endless aisle as a seamless consumer experience.

The merging of online and physical stores has also encouraged retailers to rethink what it means to be a bricks-and-mortar outlet. I recently wrote about the new buzzword ‘unstore’; a metaphor for shifting the retail focus away from location and onto experience. The very term is designed to disrupt the notion of a store as a box that merchandises and sells products, whether it is shoes, clothes, sporting goods or eyewear.

With the availability and competition online, stores (and practices) can no longer be just places that display products on shelves at set prices.

Consumers are the P.O.S.

Consumers are not only comfortable browsing online but are also perfectly comfortable making purchases online. The consumers of today expect to purchase anywhere, anytime.


Amazon’s year-on-year double-digit growth is already striking fear in Australian bricks-and-mortar retailers who are clinging to physical retail, but what’s often missed in this discourse is that consumers are situational shoppers. Whether they purchase online or in store depends on the items, season and the personal situation of the consumer at that moment in time.

For certain items like apparel, consumers want to touch, feel and try on in store; however, when pressed for time, they might opt to purchase online with next-day delivery at home. Eyewear has the advantage of needing more than touch, feel and try on; it also has the healthcare component of qualified optometry staff that people have long valued.

With credit cards, PayPal and Apple Pay, consumers can purchase anywhere and pay however they choose. What makes this tough for most traditional retailers is that stores were created to sell what was there, stocked in the store, and have customers go through the cash register.

Successful business in the future means meeting consumer demand for multiple payment options and the ability to transact the sale in store, online or on their phones.

There are no boundaries

The great advantage of traditional stores has been the ability to sell product off-the-shelf to a customer who is in the store and who can then leave with the product immediately. This advantage is rapidly being challenged by the next-day delivery option, which is in turn being challenged by same-day delivery. Even same-day delivery is being challenged in major metropolitan areas with hourly delivery.

Of course the optometry/eyewear market has already witnessed new businesses such as Warby Parker attempt to disrupt traditional retail practices as well as disrupt ‘accepted’ pricing models.

Price is always a consumer consideration, but the new key components in the value equation are product ranges versus speed of acquisition. Consumers now expect that they will have a wide variety of choices available via the ‘virtual shelf’ (online) and they now evaluate whether they are willing to wait hours or even an extra day to get the exact options and styles they want.

There is also the blurring of channel lines via ‘click and collect’. Many large retailers are realising the power of selling from the vast online inventories and enabling consumers to collect in store. This approach takes incredible infrastructure and real-time inventory systems that merge physical and virtual inventory.

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Healthcare not immune

Specialty retail and professionals in healthcare, including optometry, often think that they are ‘immune’ or need to pay minimal attention to the new multi-channel consumer behavior. The fact is all customers and patients are looking for ‘more’, and are quite willing to purchase products online.

The specialist business holds several key advantages over a traditional shop selling ‘things’ off the shelf while optometrists also have additional key advantages, which they can leverage in multiple ways:

  • They offer highly specialised services largely not available online, and in the case of your health or key abilities like vision, most customers will not trust that to just anyone. Healthcare professionals need to leverage knowledge, experience, quality, and wellness as part of their story and value proposition.

  • Healthcare specialists typically have long-standing and ‘deep’ relationships with patients (customers) – which means they are most likely to return to the optometrist they trust. After all this is about their vision.

  • Fitting glasses or contact lenses is a highly personalised service and the optometrist has products on hand for a ‘touch, feel, test’ experience as well as the ability for the customer to experience the product first-hand before purchase.

  • If there is an issue with the glasses or contact lenses, the patient has little recourse but to return the product online, if that is even possible. Customers prefer to deal with people who know how to fix and remedy the situation.

Despite all of the advantages of specialised healthcare services, they are still vulnerable to losing both sales and customers long term.

Once patients have their eyes examined and a prescription in hand, they are increasingly willing to shop around online. The amount of selection and options online is staggering, and increases monthly. Today’s consumers are not only astute at price comparisons, but much more likely to purchase online if the ‘deal’ and savings are substantial.

In addition, with very fast turnaround times and free shipping, the delivery of glasses and lenses is approaching, if not exceeding, the speed of service of some optometry practices. The key to multi-channel success for traditional ‘High Street’ businesses is to realise that it is not about the sale of ‘products’ because, when it comes to greater selection and lower prices, online retail will typically win.

Instead, multi-channel success for traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses is about creating and retaining relationships with customers. What consumers really want is access to great information and knowledge anytime and everywhere. They want more options to engage before, during and after the sale.

Therefore, in this digital world, the aim for optometrists should not be about selling a pair of glasses today, but ‘earning the right’ for a trusted patient/customer relationship that will create lifetime value beyond a single sale.

The fact that customers are looking for trusted relationships with specialists does not mean that optometrists can rest on their laurels and wait for patients to come back to their place of business. Today’s consumers have rising expectations based upon all of their great experiences online, especially at premier online retailers like Amazon.

Keeping in mind that the goal is relationships and reaching out to customers at more touch points, there are a number of things that optometrists should be exploring. Here are a few ways optometrists can reach out and engage today’s multi-channel consumers and, although none of them are new, I am constantly surprised how few healthcare businesses practice any of them:

Don’t wait for the customer to contact you… reach out to them! Use customer records to create opportunities to contact and engage patients. While it seems old and trite, email is still one of the most effective ways to reach existing customers.

The customer journey starts online. That does not mean that optometrists must start aggressively selling products online. What consumers want is great information; they expect to see a range of options with rich content.

A website is more than a virtual store for physical products. Optometrists need to re-emphasise their services and value add. Optometry services are so much more than an eye test and a prescription – patients need a reminder and to see examples.

Optometry practices should provide valuable information after business hours. There could be email options, chat bots, or other ways that potential patients and customers can connect and engage when the store is not open.

Personalisation and customisation are big drivers for today’s consumers, especially the younger generations. We well know that glasses are not only a practical and health matter but for many a fashion statement. Optometrists need to explore ways that customers can visualise what they will look like in new frames and lenses.

There are various ways digital technology can facilitate that now, and while it does not beat real life, face-to-face customer service, many younger people will be drawn to these options as a way to being introduced to your business. Everything helps!

Social media is almost unexplored territory for specialties like optometrists, however consumers today believe friends and other customers up to 10x more than advertisements. There is nothing like having customer engagement and testimonials on social media like Facebook. Creative specialists are also exploring social media like Instagram to have customers showcase their new eyewear and experiences.


4Cs Replace 4Ps

The bottom line is that, in today’s fast paced digital world, the focus has shifted from products and services to customer centricity. The 4Ps – product, price, place and promotion – have been replaced by rising expectations for the 4Cs – choice, convenience, customised and connected.

Today’s consumer behaviours and choices are multiplying retail complexity to both engage and deliver a seamless shopping experience. The successful retailers will have to become far more skilled and invest far more resources into offering consumers the choices they expect – purchasing when and where they want; paying by their method of choice; taking delivery where they choose – at a speed they require.

Meeting these levels of choices and services makes store fit-outs and product displays seem like child’s play. Multi-channel is not a retail model per se; it is how consumers shop, purchase and decide with whom to do business.

What makes retailing so much tougher today are the systems, infrastructure and complexity required to create a seamless shopping experience that satisfies the choice and personalisation today’s consumers have come to expect. Importantly, independent small businesses have to react because someone else is already offering this to shoppers.

Optometrists would do well to borrow from the best practices of specialty retailers who are leveraging their strengths of customer relationships to engage patients before, during and after the purchase. Future long-term success does not lie in selling eye exams or frames today rather, in being recognised for customer advocacy and loyalty for life long relationships.


About The Author
Chris Peterson
Contributor • Integrated Marketing Solutions (IMS)
Chris Petersen is founder and CEO of retail consultancy Integrated Marketing Solutions (IMS).
Learn more: imsresultscount.com
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