AUTOMATION IN OPTICAL RETAIL: THE IMPORTANCE OF CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
The papers and internet these days are full of stories about jobs that will disappear or radical change due to automatization, Artificial Intelligence, robotization and the internet. From truck driver to cashier and from financial professionals to kitchen chefs, jobs are quickly changing. What will happen to the Optician? How can we make sure the customers still value their services and human touch? Will it be sufficient to offer additional (medical) services or is more needed?
In the optical retail field we already have seen many forms of innovation and new technologies that have changed the work of the optician over the years. Technology has impact all the parts of the dispensing of glasses, from the refraction room to the workshop everything became more automated and precise.
Initially an Optician was a craftsman that spent much of his time using manual grinders and edgers to carefully shape the basic lenses to fit a particular frame. Over time the cutters and edgers became more advanced and the work in the workshop became more and more automated consisting mainly of entering the correct data in the computer and standing back and let the machine do its job.
In the refraction room the work used to require large trail lens kits or a manual Phoropters, and there was a lot of skill involved to quickly and efficiently iterate to the correct prescription. The first autorefractors were not yet a replacement for a proper subjective refraction, but rather an additional step to have a good starting point. However, over time the technology progressed and autorefractors improved up to the point that these days, for the top of the line lenses, with higher order corrections, the automatic measurements must be leading. The Optician cannot check or test these corrections with his phoropter or testing kit. The whole workflow is reduced to pressing a button on a touch screen and telling the customer to look at the picture in the device.
Matching the position of the lenses to the frame used to require a sharp eye, a steady hand and some judgement on how the customer would place the frame on his or her nose. These days we have an app for that.
All this automation has allowed large optical retail chains to become successful, it allows shop assistants with limited experience or knowledge to take care of the whole process. The autorefractor calculates the prescription in less than a minute. After a frame is selected, one quick picture, is sufficient to get the correct pupil position with respect to the specific frame. All the data is send to a central lab where the lenses are cut on highly efficient and automated machines. The economies of scale that this automation has brought allows the large chains such as Specsavers to be enormously profitable even at the low price points they offer. This requires that independent opticians bring something extra to the table.
In principle additional eyecare and advanced optometry services could be a way to differentiate. However even those are clearly not immune from technological innovation and lower barriers to entry. For example, retinal imaging has become more and more automated. One of the innovations with fundus cameras has been the introduction of fully automated operation. Combined with either tele–diagnosis services or with auto diagnosis again allowing these services to be offered in bulk by optical retail chains.
It is clear that in order to remain successful it will be important for opticians to embrace the innovation, where it can help and at the same time to ensure that customer has a good and memorable experience. Furthermore it is key for the optician to clearly communicate about the value of the services that are being offered. This is the only way for opticians to survive and thrive in this ever changing world.