The Most Influential Woman in Optical, Marge Axelrad
With more than 28 years of experience as an eyewear and vision care market observer, columnist and frequent speaker about optical industry issues in the U.S. and internationally, Axelrad oversees some of the countries leading eyewear magazines including; Vision Monday, VMail, VisionMonday.com and VM’s Global Leadership Summit.
Marge has been recognized numerous times for her contribution to the industry. Specifically she received the OWA Pleiades Award in 2013, the Accessories Council’s “Hall of Fame” Award in 2008 and was honored in 2011 by SUNY’s Optometric Foundation. She serves on the national board of Prevent Blindness America (2009-2013) and, in 2014, joined the board of trustees of SUNY-Optometry’s Optometric Center of NY Foundation.
We sat down with Marge and asked her thoughts on the industry and fashion.
What are the biggest changes you have seen in the eye health industry since you began?
I’d say there’s slow, but growing, awareness about eye health building out there. Industry groups and influencers are collectively trying to foster this, to let consumers and patients (they are both) know the critical role eye health plays in overall health, in learning and children’s development, in the productivity and economies around the world.
So many people don’t have access to modern eyecare and vision correction products; it’s crucial that those Americans who can access quality vision care and products understand more about how they serve everyone’s lives.
At the same time, the digital world of communications and new forms of learning have helped spread the word. There are still many misconceptions about eyewear among consumers out there. There’s a lot of education to do.
What are the biggest changes you have seen in OPTICAL RETAIL?
I see a three simultaneous trends on the retail side of the business:
- One is the rise of access to value priced eyewear and basic eyecare through mainstream retailers.
- The other is that the independent eyecare professionals, who have long collectively dominated in terms of number of locations in the U.S., continue to exert an important role. While many remain traditional and tried and true deliverers of eyewear to patients, there are a number of new and imaginative independent optical retailers out there; offering innovative new dispensaries and boutiques and offering a unique and ‘curated’ collections that are original and new and exciting to consumers.
- The third ‘trend’ is the explosion of information in the digital realm and the power of social platforms to build images, reputations and amplify gorgeous, creative eyewear and modern new eyecare technologies to patients/consumers.
What are your thoughts on online and offline sales?
I’m a firm believer in two things:
It’s imperative that all eyecare professionals and optical retailers carefully mind their online ‘impression’ and image to patients (current and prospective patients). The internet is the first resort for those searching for information about eyewear and eyecare. This includes social media presence as well. Just 5 years ago, many viewed the internet as a ‘nice to have’ option; today, it’s imperative.
That being said, eyewear and eyecare benefits from a ‘real world’ feel, interaction and handling. So it’s more important than ever for us to create new ideas for ‘brick and click’ out there – smart retailers are employing digital tools and finding exciting new ways to recreate the ‘patient experience’. In fact, C/X, or Customer Experience is being redefined among all types of retailers and brands in virtually every category today.
What have you seen has made the biggest impact on the industry in the last 5 years?
Healthcare reform. With some 60+% of eyewear purchases made by consumers in the U.S. being attached to some form of managed vision care insurance, the changes in the healthcare/reimbursement system and those in the vision arena in particular continue to challenge eyecare professionals and optical retailers even as they drive so many eye exams and eyewear purchases….This is because new software/technology systems are requiring all health care professionals to manage their businesses different…and that’s due to the second change which is….
The advent of the internet and social media in everyone’s life and as a conduit to millions of consumers exploring, getting info, comparing, discovering eyewear and optical retailers/eyecare professionals. A huge impact on all.
The rise of the Millennnial as a new customer ‘type’ – because of the internet and social media revolution of technology, new communication vehicles, “social influence” and a new attitude about brands, style, fashion and spending priorities have upended many businesses. People don’t always think of eyewear as a young person’s ‘category’ but, there is a healthy percentage of young people and Millennials who need vision correction. They’re seeking advice and relating to the category in new ways, giving rise to ‘social purpose’ and ‘social responsibility’ brands like Tom’s and many others as well as newcomers like Warby Parker, who are using ‘old’ ideas about books and reading and eyewear to appeal to trendy younger customers. They are now much imitated by both online and new brick-and-mortar retailers.
Do you think retailers need to be in multiple channels?
Retailers need a presence in multiple channels and need to be wherever the consumer needs them to be – with information, choices, technology. And, this is starting to even impact perceptions about eyecare – in person or via new technologies that allow some education, measurement and exploration via digital means. The traditional eyecare field is often appalled by these new technologies, but consumers are just now being intrigued by them.
How do you see consumers spending their dollars now?
Eyewear is not ‘one’ thing. It’s variety and diversity and creativity, and its all part of what consumers are discovering. Just as they are in apparel, fashion and home goods, there are different perceived values in long-term, premium, luxury investments or the lower risk and fun and changeability of more accessibly priced or budget products and services. It’s not one or the other!
What do you think makes a consumer select an optical retailer?
Intrigue by the choices offered and the physical environment of the retail space. A trust level in the mix of product, price options and expertise of the staff/doctors. Increasingly – good positive feedback from online reviews or word of mouth.
Now, lets get personal!
You have been in the business a long time..how do you feel about being a mentor in this business?
Mentoring is not something I formally do, but I do do it informally, with people and colleagues on our team as well as with others in the industry. If I’m helping provide any history or perspective to help someone make a decision or get them to rethink something, then I’m happy. If I can learn from them, which is increasingly true with some newcomers who don’t always know much industry ‘history’ but have other things to offer to me, then I’m happy about that, too. The most important thing is to learn from everyone and not to get ‘stuck’ in your approach of your own thinking, IMHO.
What’s the hardest thing about reporting on the industry now?
It’s kind of like all communications – people often believe what they believe and prefer to get their ideas reinforced rather than shaken up – but it’s a challenge to get folks to be open-minded and learn something new. I think the harder part is that trying to be journalistic and fair today – across all mediums, from print to web to live events – is demanding; people respect if you’re fair, but it’s seeming that getting beyond unbending ‘opinion’ is the tough thing.
What about the off-work hours…what are your favorite things to do?
I’m a New Yorker, and I love how the city constantly changes, morphs, grows, so it’s fun to explore everything from new neighborhoods to new stores and new restaurants; it’s festivals, music, museums and movies.
But I’m also fortunate to have a place just north of NYC a few hours in the Hudson Valley. It’s spectacularly unchanged, quiet, full of history, which I love, and natural beauty. And there’s nothing more fun for me than than a great antique show or vintage/junk flea market. 😉
Favorite book? Too tough to choose, sorry.
Favorite city for travel? Lots of them, love Chicago and Los Angeles and New Orleans. Small towns too: Wautoma, Wisc., Rhinebeck, NY. Love Paris, anywhere in Italy, and want to discover more. 😉
Food: home or out? If out, where and why. I live in Manhattan – there are so many options, I love to go out! High/low – pizza, tacos, or the newest chic place.
Issue you care about? I like modern things but I’m concerned about preservation of old things – could be a old building in NYC or a schoolhouse in upstate NY. Am a supporter of NYC Landmarks.
Who is your Mentor? I’ve been lucky to have MANY of these. From my dad, who taught me much about the dynamics of business, to colleagues at prior jobs, tough bosses (good and bad) at prior companies, and the inspiration of the many friendships I’ve been lucky enough to have as my working life has developed.