We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

More on technology and threats to business models

Following on from this post about how technology can boost some businesses but later turn them over, I thought about a specific type of business that I use, as a result of one of the comments. Namely, the optician. I am one of those folk who wear glasses pretty much all day and I do not like bothering with contact lenses or laser eye surgery. I have a slight stigmatism in my right eye and contact lenses for such a thing are very pricey. Since I was a young boy I have worn specs, and after the usual phase of being teased as a “four-eyes”, I got over that, and decided, “To hell with it, I am going to go for the intelligent preppy guy look instead”. (It worked on the ladies, I find. Come to that, I find some women in glasses incredibly attractive).

But will modern technology and things like the internet put some opticians out of business? Possibly. If you know your prescription and the type of lenses you need, then I suppose that if you see a frame that suits, you can submit the order, and assuming the postal system is working, get the specs in a few days. In my case, though, I actually like to browse through a number of different frames and try them on first. There does not seem to be a substitute for doing it in the flesh, so to speak. It is the same, surely, for buying some kind of clothes, even off-the-peg ones where you know your size. Sometimes there is just no getting around the need to go to a store, go to the changing room and try stuff on.

14 comments to More on technology and threats to business models

  • Sometimes there is just no getting around the need to go to a store, go to the changing room and try stuff on

    True, but only sometimes. The point is that some businesses will go completely online, some partially, some not at all, and some will simply vanish. BTW, when it comes to products for which touch and feel are important, I think that the importance of branding will rise as businesses go online: brands who maintain consistent quality, sizing and other characteristics, while still managing to introduce innovations, will win the online business. I buy clothes and shoes online quite often, and so I will stick with a brand who’s shoes, for example, are consistent with the latest fashion, but still are certain to fit just like the pair I bought from them last year, so I don’t have to bother going to the store and trying them on. At the same time, say I pick a pair while out on a walk window shopping, and I like it, try the same brand next year (either online or back at the store) and it is crap, then business is lost (both online and off it). But if the brand is consistent, at least part of it will maintain an online presence.

  • cjf

    More importantly, unmentioned, are unintended consequences. Book burnings can now be replaced by keystrokes.

    Most older technology has alternative backup systems and methods. (eyeglasses are not new)

    Most business “progress” makes them more dependent upon centrally-controlled and distributed electricity.

    Also, remember, that electric power lines are used to carry information (words, sounds, images, data) as well as the power itself.

    Machines often require overspecialization, specific to a certain machine. This creates people who are inept in other ways. especially in adaptation to system failures.

    Each bit of progress comes first as a luxury. Once it becomes commonplace, it is seen as necessity, giving loss to former skills. Most technology is purchased and used by those who can afford to pay the price.

    While some can own new technology, others, who cannot, will rely on more decentralized, older technology

    This is why an Afghan can make a duplicate of a firearm
    in a village hut. Most, who cannot make them, at least understand enough to use them more effectively than a
    Westerner, who doesn’t have to rely on them to stay alive.

    While some people may own technologies, others, who cannot afford to own it, are the ones who know how it
    works; and, how to make it not-work.

    Politicians meet needs by not solving problems; but, by controlling the need. Corporations don’t sell technology to solve your problems; but, by controlling your future need.

  • watcher in the dark

    There is a presumption here (albeit a reasonable one) that growth and improvements in technology will continue unabated. There may however be a whole raft of events in the future, from government interference, or a sort of consumer terrorism to the unthinkable natural event (a sort of cosmic EMP, maybe) that renders current technology useless or too expensive to use.

    We may have to go back, one way or another, to more primitive methods. So books will revive (and be correspondingly rare) and the wonders of the tinterwebs a thing of the past.

    Suddenly more primitive cultures will have a head start, which should be interesting when they come to lecture us…

  • Pete

    My wife and I both buy our specs on the net from an American company but the specs are shipped from China!

    We’re both happy – after spending several hundred pounds for glasses from the local optician we can now buy varifocal photocromic stylish specs , including anti reflection and anti scratch coatings for $130! (If you don’t have photocromic, they throw in magnetic clip on polaroids.)

    Warning – you must have your PD measurement which our local optician was *very* loath to give us – he actually claimed that you can’t buy varifocals on the internet…

  • Yes, and some people will always be willing to pay for this, and businesses providing this for those willing to pay for it will continue to exists. However, if at the end of the experience you received a bill saying “Contact lenses: £50. Warm and fuzzy experience: £450”, you would possibly be annoyed by this, even though this is the genuine breakdown of the costs. This is why businesses providing this service have not traditionally broken their bills out this way, and have pretended that the cost of the spectacles or contact lenses themselves was the bulk of the cost. As you became more experienced with spectacles and contact lenses, you might well need the warm and fuzzy experience less, and be willing to pay less simply for the physical product. The traditional business model has existed to obscure the cost breakdown to prevent you from avoiding the steps you did not want in future. Once you know the cost breakdown, you may be willing to make a bit more effort in order to save money in future, or you may not. It’s your choice. My hunch is that once they do know the costs and are presented with alternatives, enough people will choose the lower cost options that it will have serious implications on the existing business.

    Transparency is good. Always.

  • westerlyman

    For me I would be happy to buy almost everything on-line provided I was reassured that the firm I was dealing with would honour returns and refunds and the product quality was good.

    However, although I personally find it incomprehensible, there are a great many people who actually enjoy shopping. Retail therapy is for several members of my family not a figure of speech but an accurate description. My daughter would be a gold medallist if clothes browsing were an Olympic discipline. I am not talking about the act of spending money as her pleasure in a day spent wandering round the mall is undiminished even if she returns home without a single purchase.

  • Cid the Cidious

    “…I find some women in glasses incredibly attractive”

    Right on brother, right on.

  • Robert

    Knowing the prescription you had five years ago isn’t much help when it comes to buying glasses; your eyes keep on changing.

    This alone doesn’t necessarily rule out internet provision. Just make glasses at standard strengths, like shoe sizes, and let the customer decide when they need to get a stronger pair. This will cater for the majority of the glass-wearing population.

    However, I’m long sighted in one eye, short sighted in the other, an asymmetry which is not particularly unusual. Providing glasses of standardised strengths isn’t going to work for cases like mine – too many combinations. Further, my prescription changed significantly between 15 and 30, before settling down. Getting a prescription once, then ordering from that would simply not have worked for me, or for many others.

    Thus, there is a significant population who need their glasses making to measure, not just once in a life time, but every few years, which may well be enough to keep high street opticians viable.

  • Errol

    Robert, you miss the distinction made in the original podcast. Opticians provide 2 things – A measurement service, and supply of physical glasses (typically selected in a warm and fuzzy environment,and provided after a few days). The first requires you to be in the same room as a trained professional (and associated equipment), the second does not.

  • Robert

    Actually, Errol, if you look at what I said it’s clear that I understand that distinction perfectly well. My argument is that enough people need glasses made to measure to provide a viable high street niche

    However, anyone selling the measurement service has a captive market for selling the frames, which they can be expected to take advantage of, if they’re part of a commercial organisation.

    This doesn’t mean they’ll be a significant player in the frames market – the vast majority of that will probably be online – merely that it will still be possible to go to your high street opticians and get new glasses, with frames.

  • Errol

    Actually, Errol, if you look at what I said it’s clear that I understand that distinction perfectly well.

    Knowing the prescription you had five years ago isn’t much help when it comes to buying glasses; your eyes keep on changing.

    This alone doesn’t necessarily rule out internet provision. Just make glasses at standard strengths…

    This reads to me that you didn’t. The suggestion made was that many people are likely to order lenses for their prescription, fitted to the frames they specify, over the net. There was no suggestion that people would be ‘stuck’ with a five year old prescription if it didn’t suit. There would be no requirement for ‘standard’ strengths (although there may be benefits to ordering a common prescription in a common frame).

  • Robert

    There is no contradiction there.

    Most likely, there will still be opticians who do the actual testing, for anyone who needs an actual prescription (which isn’t everyone who needs glasses), and those opticians will also sell a basic selection of frames – they’ve got a captive audience, and often their own lens grinding machines.

    This in no way precludes people then taking that prescription and ordering on line. Indeed, the vast majority of glasses may well be bought that way, but that doesn’t mean other viable channels won’t exist. They will.

    Perhaps an analogy will clarify. Very few people go to a petrol station just to buy snacks, and the vast majority of snacks are not sold by petrol stations, yet petrol stations do sell snacks, and will continue to as long as you have to get out of the car to pay. For snacks, read frames.

  • Glasses Direct. Frames & lenses from £16.99 for both.

  • John Cookson

    I order glasses over the web. Here is a link to the frames I have ordered in the past.


    The frames are rimless and are $51 which includes single vision Hi-Index 1.56 AS® Hi-Max lenses. The lenses I actually ordered carry a $35 premium and are called Ultra thin 1.67 Aspheric Lens by DAGAS.

    Several years ago, a work colleague was wearing new rimless glasses which cost him over $500. I tried them on and although not a similar prescription to mine, they were aesthetically pleasing. I traced the lens shape outline from his glasses and ordered these from the above linked Hong Kong vendor using a jpg image email attachment showing the lens size and shape that I needed. I was able to use a paper ruler wielded by a friend to determine my pupillary distance and had a prescription from my optician. A few weeks later my glasses arrived and they were perfect (exactly what I expected). Since this time, I have ordered several pairs of glasses for distance and reading purposes.

    In my case the risk of a mistake was financially very small and once you have found the right frame, reordering with a revised prescription becomes a “no-brainer”. The savings are enormous owing to the massive cost differentials between Hong Kong and most western countries for eyeglasses. I have to admit to having no idea how this cost differential can be justified.