I can see clearly now the rain has gone...'

22 June 2009

The trouble with word limits is that you can’t always go into much detail as you’d like – admittedly a cap on how much waffle I can write is generally a good thing; however, sometimes it would help to be able to explain things a bit more thoroughly.

In the June issue of Moneywise magazine, I shared my ‘staff tip’ on the spend and save page. It was about ordering contact lenses online and how much cheaper it is compared to getting them from my local family–run opticians. (For the purposes of this blog let’s call them Vision Excess and no they have nothing to do with high street chain Vision Express – that after all wouldn’t make them an independent business.)

What I didn’t share is that it’s been the best part of six months that I have been mmming and ahhing about doing this. I’ve always tried to support local businesses where possible and buying online felt a bit like I was betraying Vision Excess.

Still you can’t argue with the maths of it: six months worth of my contact lenses, cost around £90 at my opticians but the same brand of lenses costs £27.32 online. That’s £63 more. So down to my last pair of monthlies I finally plucked up the courage to call Vision Excess and get an eye checkup, (a condition of ordering online is that customers have to have up to date sight tests and prescription details prior to ordering new lenses at getlenses.com).

My plan was to have the checkup, pay for it and say I’d order the lenses another day. Go home. Wait a few days. Then call up Vision Excess and ask for my prescription to order the lenses at getlenses.com. Like the coward I am I figured it would be easier to do this over the phone than face to face.

However, my supposed straightforward and flawless plan backfired. First of all I was a few minutes late for my appointment; the result of this was a decidedly frosty welcome from the receptionist (seriously four minutes late and it was as if I’d kept her waiting a couple of hours, out in the cold, without a coat – and then not turned up.) Being late meant I was in ultra friendly/groveling mode and the thought of doing the dirty on Vision Excess seemed extra unfair. 

So when asked after my checkup if I wanted to pay for my next order of lenses now or on receiving them, I didn’t quite know how to say ‘neither’. For a moment I even thought about just getting another six–month order to appease my guilt. Stuttering like an idiot I managed to explain in a rambling, mumbled apology that actually I was sort of…thinking of maybe… switching to ordering them …erm online. Not because I was unhappy with the service my opticians provided me… in fact I felt very bad about leaving them … but it was just a lot cheaper and I couldn’t ignore this any longer. So… if its ok could I just have my prescription please? ta very much.

Unsurprisingly my news didn’t go down too well; I might as well have thrown in the classic ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ line but these guys were on the ball. The receptionist launched a clever counter attack asking if I’d heard about their price plan? Members of the scheme pay £9.25 a month direct debit in return for discounted checkups, replacement lenses and getting their orders sent through the post. But that £111 a year doesn’t include the actual lenses: that costs an extra £54.64 a month with the discount and then customers also have to pay a one–off £49.50 charge to set the whole caboodle up. Hmmmm.

Even with the supposed competitive prices on offer, it was still cheaper to go online and pay Vision Excess the hiked up £55, out of the price plan, for an eye checkup. I then threw in the £30 online pricetag, perhaps a little smugly but also hoping my opticians couldn’t argue with this or judge me for my infidelity. The receptionist, seemingly floored, looked to her colleague for a comeback: was I sure I could really get six months’ worth of lenses for under £30? Wouldn’t that be for just one eye? She kindly explained to me that with the price plan lenses were under £60 so in the end I wouldn’t be saving anything. Her keen questioning coupled with high–pitched incredulity got me. I started to doubt my calculations and thought I’d got something wrong.

But after a spot of number crunching at home I knew I wasn’t wrong. And now that I had an up to date eye test I could order my lenses online and getlenses.com would contact Vision Excess directly for the details. If Vision Excess weren’t happy about this then they would have to be more competitive in their prices rather than dressing up a load of pointless charges in an inflated package I didn’t want or need.

Vision Excess called me up in a last bid to try and woo me back but they were too late: my online order had gone through. Maybe by the time it comes round to order my next batch of lenses they’ll have caught onto the fact that local businesses don’t have a monopoly on customers. If they want to compete they are going to have be more creative and clever with the services and products they offer – as well as holding on to the old–fashioned values of being personable and friendly.

Call me a fool but if Vision Excess catch onto these things then I might go back to them. I appreciate that small businesses are having a tough time at the moment if I can support them I will. However, the crucial point is that they are still businesses and not charities.


Nathalie Bonney is Editorial Assistant at Moneywise