Looking to Warby Parker as a Model for Online Hearing Aid Sales

Currently, a number of companies are selling hearing aids online with little success. It seems bizarre that in 2018 this industry still hasn’t broken into the online marketplace, especially with 80% of those who could benefit from hearing aids being unserved. So why is that? To start, lets have a look at some of these companies:

https://www.audicus.com

https://www.embracehearing.com

https://hearingcentral.com

https://www.buyhear.com

https://www.hearingdirect.com/hearing-aids/

https://hearstore.com

Now lets change focus for a second and talk about a company called Warby Parker. Founded in 2010, Warby Parker has grown from selling eyeglasses online from a New York apartment building to being valued at 1.75 billion dollars. Warby Parker was not the first company to sell eyeglasses online. They were however, the first company to make purchasing eyeglasses online an option people actually considered. How did they do that?

Here’s a line from a 2011 piece about the company: “Other sites sell glasses online… but they are cluttered and the selection can resemble that of a drugstore.”

That line is from 7 years ago, but it could easily be written today about any of the online hearing aid retailers listed above. Cluttered and drugstore-like. Messy and full of beige. Excessive choice and jargon-heavy.

Now look at the Warby Parker site.

It’s simple and beautiful. They don’t need 800 words of ad copy telling you why you need this pair of glasses. Instead there might be 30 words and numerous large, striking photos of their product. The frames themselves are front and center, but the real magic of the website are the countless images of people wearing their glasses. Anyone visiting the site can immediately begin imagining themselves in a pair of Warby Parker frames.

Warby Parker’s number one self-professed guiding principle is “Shopping for glasses should be fun, easy, and not ridiculously expensive.” Can that apply to hearing aids?

  1. Fun. Can buying hearing aids really be fun? I think so. I think the fun in this context comes not from scrolling through stock images of the devices themselves, but instead being encouraged to imagine yourself using the products and enjoying life with them. A website aiming to sell hearing aids should be able to accomplish this.
  2. Easy. No driving to appointments, no taking time off work, simple returns and repairs. Being easy is what the internet is good at and buying hearing aids on the internet should be no different.
  3. Not ridiculously expensive. Warby Parker famously priced their first frames at $95 rather than $50 because people believed that at $50, the quality must have been really poor. The pricing scheme for hearing aids online should follow this guideline. They can be priced less than conventional retailers, but not so much less that the quality of the product is called into question.

If the general principles of what Warby Parker does so well can apply to internet-based hearing aid sales, then why hasn’t anyone done it successfully yet? There are lots of reasons out there, but I personally just don’t believe anyone has fully committed to it. To really dive into this thought experiment, lets imagine that Warby Parker started selling hearing aids tomorrow. This is how I think they’d do it:

The Product:

In the interest of ultimate simplicity and minimal clutter, the Warby Parker hearing aid website would offer a single model. This model would be the premium made-for-iPhone receiver-in-canal product offering from a respected major manufacturer, rebranded as a Warby Parker device. Consumers would be able to purchase the device in various colours, including Warby Parker’s signature blue.

This lack of product choice may be appalling to some, but its the best option. Guarantee the consumer the best chance of a successful experience and they are more likely to be satisfied. Further, consumers for the most part don’t make decisions based on rational thought; they make decisions based on emotion. In the case of current online hearing aid sales companies, they feel confused and frustrated by the excessive variety of products with no discernable difference and the jargon-filled sales language. For these reasons, they ultimately decide not to purchase hearing devices online. By removing unnecessary choices, the decision to do so becomes much easier.

The Process:

Consumers interested in purchasing hearing aids online from Warby Parker would simply visit the website and browse the options available. When they are ready to purchase, they would upload a digital copy of their hearing evaluation results (audiogram) which would be reviewed by a hearing specialist to ensure they are likely to be successful with their Warby Parker hearing devices. The evaluation must have been completed within the previous year and only consumers with hearing losses aidable by RIC devices may proceed further. Those with more severe hearing losses and those with poor word recognition scores would be advised to see their local audiologist for hearing aid fitting, as they are unlikely to be successful without additional counselling.

The consumer would then select the colour of devices they’d like. They would also be given the option to upgrade to a rechargeable device as well as the option to include a remote microphone or remote control in their purchase.

They will then enter their payment and shipping information. The order will be placed upon review of the audiogram by a hearing specialist. The devices would then be programmed to the consumer’s needs using the appropriate prescriptive fitting rationale.

The devices would be shipped to the user in a high-quality package similar to their eyeglasses. A simplified guide to care and maintenance would be included. The user would have 30 days to try the devices and if they are unsatisfied, they’d simply affix the included prepaid return label to the shipping box and return the products. Perhaps, the user could fill out a provided question card which could provide Warby Parker with direction as to how to adjust the device better, and then resend the device to the user.  Repairs would be sent in using a prepaid return label as well.

Where the Hearing Health Practicioner Fits In:

Presently, the loudest opposition to online hearing device sales comes from audiologists and hearing instrument specialists who feel this practice directly threatens their livelihood. This model will actually do the opposite. By having more people pursuing hearing evaluations, clinics could see the number of people coming through their clinics increase. While many of these new consumers would likely follow through and purchase hearing aids from Warby Parker, each one would still represent an opportunity for the clinician to pitch their products and services as better offerings. It is likely that a portion of those who seek hearing evaluations for online hearing devices would be persuaded to go with a conventional clinic instead.

Additionally, if the expectation of payment for additional services is clear up front, clinics could earn income from servicing Warby Parker hearing aids. Warby Parker could explicitly list “suggested service fees” on their website which clinics could use as guidelines in billing customers for services such as counselling, adjustments, in-clinic repairs, manufacturer repairs, and real-ear verification. So long as these values are known by the user upfront and offer a compelling profit for the clinic there would be no reason not to provide these services.

In Summary:

Do I really want to see online hearing aid sales become more prevalent? Part of me says no; as a clinician I know that a person in need of hearing services will have the highest chance of success with intensive counselling and in-person services.

However, its absolutely unacceptable that only about 20% of those in need of hearing devices actually have them available to use. Utilizing Warby Parker’s proven principles of ease and affordability in online sales has the potential to put life-changing technology in the ears of that remaining 80%.

 

 

P.S. If you’re someone who might be hiring newly graduating audiology students next spring you can just forget that I ever wrote all this nonsense. It was just an interesting thought exercise done on a rainy Sunday evening. Brick-and-mortar stores all the way.

P.S.S. If you’re Neil Blumenthal or David Gilboa, co-founders and co-CEO’s of Warby Parker, email me. Let’s chat.

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3 comments

  1. John Elliott · July 16, 2018

    Great idea, but there is an easy explanation for why this business model does not currently exist. The hearing aid oligopoly simply will not allow it (yet). Hearing aid manufacturers shut down the accounts of those who provide to online stores and regularly engage in corporate and legal bullying. They do this to limit choice and transparency in order to keep prices high. If retail prices are high, then wholesale prices (and margins) are preserved – it’s as simple as that. A Warby Parker (or anyone else) looking to break through would either need to manufacture the products themselves or find a willing manufacturer to break out and be the first one (which would kill their business coming from the independents).

    Like

    • Hearington · July 16, 2018

      The manufacturers that did that with Costco seem to be doing ok. I think it would be doable if the branding was kept distinct enough. But I completely hear your other points.

      Like

  2. Kat Penno · July 27

    Hi Remington, great article and a fun and relevant blog! Why not I say (have this blog going).
    I agree in part with a lot of what you are saying. As an audiologist with an economics background (long story) I see our industry is ripe for disruption. Why not have an online store with all the bells and whistles to support your client. There are not enough audiologists (supply) graduating from tertiary qualified institutes. Part of this is costs to study, lack of support from the professional bodies, lack of recognition of an audiologist vs audiometrist (hearing tech in the states perhaps) and attrition rates. On the flip side (demand) I keep seeing these large numbers published by WHO and various other journals stating increases in disabling hearing losses and noise being the new secondhand smoke (2015). I agree with those articles, but what is fundamentally missing is the individual demand. Does the client want to see an audiologist? Do people want hearing health care support?

    This questions rarely gets asked on any forum. What I do read, discuss and see at conferences is people saying “the client must come to my bricks and mortar clinic. They need my services” (said clinic owner or retailer hearing aid audiologist). And to some extent I agree with them. There are some hearing losses that need to be seen via the traditional F2F model. But why not the above online sales and delivery model? It would be cost effective. Accessible (World wide) and time efficient. Look I could discuss the oligopolies till your ears fall off (pun intended!) but do you remember these brands and what happened to them? Kodak? Nokia? The bricks and mortar hi-fi sound system stores. Look their business stories up and tell me if you think the profession of audiology is immune to this disruption.

    Thanks Kat Penno

    Liked by 1 person

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