Thursday, June 1, 2017

Lesson #267: Score One for Brick and Mortar Retail--An EZContacts.com Disaster Case Study

Posted By: George Deeb - 6/01/2017

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It is no surprise that the internet has been killing offline retail.  Gone are chains like Blockbuster, Borders, and Sports Authority, to name a few. And, the blodshed is far from over, with chains like Sears, Macy's and JC Penney hanging on for dear life.  They just can't compete with the internet prices, that don't have to cover the huge investment in brick and mortar real estate, inventory and employees.  Is there any retail category that is safe from the internet's death grip . . . I may have found one!!

THE BACKGROUND

I recently needed a new pair of eyeglasses.  I went to my local LensCrafters store for my eye exam and to browse new frames.  But, I did something I had never done before at an optical store, which I always had done in other stores . . . I wrote down the SKU of the frames and started searching for them online when I got home.

And, for good reason.  The same Polo brand frames I has seen at LensCrafters for $250, were available online for half the price of $125 from several vendors I had never heard of.  After doing a little online research, I felt EZContacts.com was worth giving a shot (despite their brand name, as I assumed they started in contacts and evolved into glasses too).  Online they made it pretty simple.  I could easily enter my prescription, they showed me how to measure my pupil distance and gave me a wide range of lenses to choose from.

I picked their most expensive lenses, at $199, assuming they were going to be the best, with all the bells and whistles needed, like anti-reflective coatings, thin construction and crystal clear definition.  I paid for the transaction on March 23, sat back and waited for my new glasses to arrive.

WHAT HAPPENED AFTERWARDS

I got a call the next day from an optometrist that said he worked for EZContacts.com saying that he had my prescription and all looked good, and asked if I had any questions.  I thought that was a nice touch, and I felt that I was in good hands.  Although, I did find it strange that the caller ID came in as a different company name called Sharper Image.  I assumed EZContacts.com had subcontracted the fulfillment to a local optometrist, which was fine given the price savings I was getting.

But, after the 5 business days of advertised delivery time, nothing showed up.  I gave them another week, and called them on April 6th asking why they were more than a week late; as I needed these glasses to see!!  They apologized, said there were abnormally busy, and shipped them out on April 9th, which I received the next day.

Excited to finally get my new glasses, I opened the box and tried them on.  And, I couldn't see clearly through them at all.  The prescription didn't feel accurate.  There was no anti-reflective coating, which distracted my vision.  And, they felt like a crappy lens--with a cloudy haze.  Anything but what I was expecting.

CUSTOMER SERVICE BREAKS

I called to complain, and was greeted by a message that their office was closed on April 11th and 12th for the Passover holiday break (even though every major retail optical chain were open those days).  And, when I called back on April 13th, there was such a back log of customer service calls that I ended up on hold for over two hours behind around 100 other callers.  Probably people like me, disappointed with their purchases??

When I finally spoke to the company, they said to ship them back and gave me a link to their returns page, which was not easily found on their website (forcing me to lose two hours on the phone hunting it down).  It was like they were intentionally hiding it, so people couldn't send back their purchases.  About a week or two after shipping back my glasses, I got a call from their support team saying my lenses were missing the anti-reflective coating by mistake, and that they would send a new pair.  To which I said, I don't really trust you guys anymore with my eyesight, and asked for a full refund, given how bad my customer experience was with them.

But, they told me they could only refund 50% of the $199 lens cost, since they were already cut.  So, I was going to have to eat around $100 for giving this online retailer a chance: an amount that was elevated by the fact I thought I was buying the best lenses possible to avoid exactly this situation.

THE OUTCOME

Given the bad experience I had online, I marched right back into LensCrafters, where I could physically see the quality of the lenses before buying them, and have them professionally measured (as I wasn't exactly sure I was doing it right on my own, from home).  I didn't end up buying new frames, I re-used my old frames to save on the costs, given the above out-of-pocket costs I incurred.  So, instead of getting new glasses and frames for around $300, saving $100 versus retail.  I ended up paying $300 for lenses only, including the $100 I lost from EZContacts.com.  Not the outcome I had in mind by going to the internet to save money.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I may or may not buy frames only online, depending on how high the lenses costs are alone.  The offline retailers are smart--they deeply discount lenses by 50% if you buy frames from them, but you have to pay full price for the lenses if you don't.  So, whatever savings you are getting from buying frames online, you are most likely giving it back in the form of higher lenses prices offline.  So, until an online optical store can more seemlessly replicate the offline buying experience, I think the brick and mortar optical stores will survive to live another day.  Score one for brick and mortar retail, in the sea of otherwise carnage.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU

If you are in the brick and mortar retail business, you are most likely going to lose on price to the internet retailers every time.  And, price is a huge driver of a consumer's purchase decision.  You are going to have to figure out how to offer something unique and different, that the online guys don't have to compete.  In this case study, that included things like the onsite doctors, physical lenses to look through before you buy (privately branded and unique to them, so you couldn't hunt them down online) and pricing models that make the consumers feel indifference whether they buy online or offline.

And, as for EZContacts.com . . . buyer beware!!  I should have know better to buy eyeglasses from a company branded as a contacts seller.


For future posts, please follow me on Twitter at: @georgedeeb.




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