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Future of Optical Retail Design

The Evolution Of UK Optical Retail Design

January 31, 2018 - News -

The in-store design and customer experience of optical retailers have evolved dramatically over the years. Taking a look back can help us realise just how far we’ve all come.


The fierce competition that began in optical retailing in the ’80s, in the form of the big box and discount retailers, inspired independent and small-chain ECPs (Eye-care professionals) to step up their efforts.

While the larger chains could leverage the reputation of the franchise to help drive foot traffic and sales, smaller owned and managed practices relied on individual customer satisfaction and repeat clients. The emphasis was shifting towards providing the opposite experience you found at the big corporations – a more personal retail experience that built relationships with the community. Thus having decor that differentiated you from the competition was vital.

As with all industries, technology inevitably affects everything. For opticians, the streamlining of manufacturing processes set in motion a significant design shift. When frames became easier and faster to produce in the late ‘80s, ECP’s had to keep pace with larger dispensaries by expanding their own range of available frames. This naturally led to using more displays and the shift towards a more retail experience.

This distinctive shift from a clinical environment to a more retail environment paved the way for the use of more vibrant colours, creative cabinet designs, and fashionable furniture.


Something, that thankfully stayed in the ‘90s is neon lighting. Many opticians jumped on the ‘90s neon bandwagon, using it for signs, around displays, around cabinets.  Pretty much all over. We can all agree this design trend can stay in the ‘90s.

Design Trend 1990s

Industry design experts agree that the biggest change since 1986 has been that ECPs have moved their focus from dispensing in a medical environment to selling in a retail environment. This shift also led to a creative, colourful wave of new designs and concepts.

But why did this change occur?

Opticians have to cover the costs involved when giving out free eye tests to the public and then they are reimbursed by the GOS. However, it’s been widely documented within the optical industry that the reimbursed fee doesn’t fully cover the costs of conducting a sight test. The money being brought in wasn’t enough to keep the neon lights on! In fact, a typical optician will incur a loss between £15-£40 on every NHS and privately funded eye examination.

Examination 2000

Thankfully, opticians can’t cut corners when performing eye examinations because missing indicators of future problems like glaucoma is harmful to the public. Their answer to this was to adjust their business model – they became reliant on achieving profits through the sales of optical appliances. And fast forward to 2011 when spectacles (including frames, lenses and sunglasses) accounted for around 76% of sales, with contact lenses accounting for around 16%, and eye tests and care accounting for around only 9%.

Once the sale of frames became the main focal point of opticians, designer brands started taking notice and quickly realised the potential selling power. And once the designer brands started making their way into the market, it created the need for signage and graphics to differentiate them from the average frames – the designer brands had shops within shops. This is still the way today, not only in opticians but throughout the retail sector in general.


The impact of the economic downturn after the turn of the millennium was felt in most industries and ECP’s were no different. People were holding onto their cash more than previous generations and were less willing to pay for new spectacles or contacts. Instead, they turned to cheaper products from larger franchises or went without glasses altogether. The market for optical goods actually shrank by 5% between 2009 and 2011 to £2,553 million. That might still seem like a decent sized industry but for each individual practice, where the profit margins are fine, the drop is significant.


Today, in-store design is an art and science of its own. ECP’s are looking for the “WOW!” factor that makes people stop and take notice, provides a great patient experience and turns them into satisfied customers.  


Right now the room for creativity means it is a very exciting time to be designing retail environments that have universal appeal and look stylish for the future.

That’s a look at the history of optical retail design…


Click here to find out our thoughts on the future of optical retail design!



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