After dropping out of uni for good I needed to find myself a full-time job. Having only really worked in a kitchen and in retail before, I mostly applied for other retail positions. In my experience, not many retailers regularly have full-time jobs going, but I struck lucky (sort of) and stumbled across an ad in the window of a chain optician who just so happened to be looking for someone to fill a full-time, entry-level position. I spoke to the manager, arranged an interview, and got given the job within a week.
So far, so good. I got sent to train for a few days in Croydon and learned the basics of selling, fitting and understanding glasses, as well as how to do five parts of the sight test, such as taking personal and medical details, taking their prescription from reading the lenses of their glasses, using a machine to guess their level of sight, how to take photos of their retina and how to get readings of the pressure in people's eyes. This first stage of training finished with tests, and I passed. This meant I started working at the store, helping start sight tests and advising customers on which frames and lenses to buy. Over time I also learned how to repair broken glasses, measure varifocals and teach people how to put in, remove and take care of contact lenses.
I worked in optics for a year and a half, in fact I almost went on to study and qualify as an optician. This was despite the job being really challenging, the company culture being pretty appalling and the customers often being... rather tricky. While I worked in several different branches of the same chain which were all vastly different (more on that later) I can honestly say, at times, it was the worst job I've ever had. Anyway, here's what I learned from working in an optician.
1. Customers can be the absolute worst
I've worked with difficult people (customers, press, co-workers, management) in every job I've ever had. However, by far the worst customers I've had to deal with were in the optician. I worked in a town not far outside of London where customers were rude at the best of times and actually aggressive at worst. I once had a man threaten to punch me, and then threaten to sue me, because I couldn't give him a contact lens prescription (because he didn't have one). In the slightly "nicer" city I worked in later, the customers were mostly lovely, but could be a bit condescending. I was frequently told that they only wanted to speak to the manager (even though I could easily help them with what they needed) and to take even the most basic repair up three floors to "the nice chap in the lab" despite telling them as politely as possible that I could have fixed it myself in minutes. Luckily the "nice chap in the lab" was my boyfriend at the time, so that made it a bit easier. On that note...
2. Office romances are impossible to keep quiet
When we started dating, I don't think we explicitly intended to keep it a secret, but we didn't plan to announce it either. Nevertheless it quickly became common knowledge. By which I mean it became everyone's business. People would ask me to ask him for things, assuming that I would get a better response than they would. That said, having a nice man to hug when I was having a crappy day definitely made my working life a little better.
3. People know nothing about their eyes
Even before working in an optician I knew some basic stuff about eyes, eye diseases and how vision works. As it turns out, this isn't universal. Some people are totally clueless, especially about how precious your eyes are! So, just a quick rundown of what you need to do to look after your eyes:
- Get sight tests every two years, minimum, even if you think your vision is fine. Sight tests check the overall health of your eyes, not just how well you can see. In fact, certain parts of the sight test can actually catch symptoms of serious issues like brain tumours, so don't ignore those reminders.
- Wear sunglasses as much as you can if you're outdoors. UV damage is as bad for your eyes as it is for your skin.
- Don't ignore eye infections. However, go to your GP with these, not your optician.
- If your vision suddenly changes, it could be a symptom of something seriously wrong. An optician will be able to refer you to an eye hospital if necessary.
- Dirty pillowcases are a real danger to your eyes. Even if you're a bit lazy about changing your sheets, change your pillowcases regularly.
- If you get something in your eye DON'T RUB IT. Try to remain calm until you can rinse your eye, preferably with sterile saline solution but pure, clean, room-temperature water will work in a pinch. Keep rinsing and gently blinking until your eye is clear. Some of the worst eye injuries I've seen are from people getting grit in their eyes then rubbing them really hard. Don't do it.
4. Different branches of the same store can be totally different experiences
I worked in two branches of Monsoon and they were much the same. However, this isn't always the case, especially when stores are sometimes franchised or partly privately-owned. The management structure and location can have a huge bearing on your experience of working in that store. The first branch of the chain optician I worked for was a pretty horrible experience. The manager was dreadfully sexist and unpleasant, and the targets were often unreachable and didn't take into account that there were several other opticians very close by. The pressure, combined with the anxiety I felt about the manager's inappropriate behaviour, made my depression a hell of a lot worse and I dreaded going to work, despite having some lovely colleagues. Then I helped out doing overtime at three other, horribly understaffed, branches, which all had different atmospheres in different ways.
When I transferred branches permanently to my local store near my parents' house it was like working in a totally different industry. The staff were all under a lot of pressure, but everyone was lovely and I didn't feel sick about going to work, even when the place was packed with people and we barely had time to breathe. My experiences of the branches varied vastly, and I imagine they felt quite different to shop in too!
5. Glasses from opticians are very overpriced... but they may be safer
One thing a lot of people don't know is that the bulk of the designer frames you see in an optician are produced by the same company. This means they have a monopoly on pricing and can basically charge whatever they like, because there's no competition. Overall, you can expect to pay anything from £69-£1000 for a stylish pair at an optician, and more if you get anti-reflection coatings (which you really should) or varifocals.
When you compare this to the prices of online glasses retailers like Glasses Direct and Glasses Lit, these prices seem obscene, and frankly they are. However, there are some distinct advantages of buying glasses in an optician.
- All of your measurements will be taken into account (including pupil distances, which are not part of your sight test, but are very important to make sure your glasses are going work properly). Incorrect measurements can give you headaches and actually make your vision worse.
- An optical assistant in a store can help you choose frames that suit your face shape, and you actually get to try them on to see how they look.
- Your glasses will be fitted both before and after you collect them, so they will work properly and fit your head.
- If you buy them in a store, they will usually carry out minor repairs and refitting (like lost screws or popped-out lenses) for free.
- If you have issues with the lenses for whatever reason, or your prescription turns out to be not quite right, they will replace the lenses for free if you bought the glasses at the same place as you had your sight tested. If you buy glasses online and your prescription turns out to be wrong, you will likely have to pay the cost of the new lenses.
That said, as I'm able to fit, mend, and measure glasses myself, I've bought quite a few pairs online without incident. You can get your optician to measure your pupil distance for you so you can buy online, but bear in mind that they don't have to, and can charge you for this service.
Working in an optician was certainly interesting, and it's weird to think how different my life would be now if I'd gone ahead with training as an optician. If you're career-driven, decent at maths and good with people and pressured working environments you might really love working in optics. If you're squeamish, easily flustered or clumsy it might not be for you (I have the scars from accidentally stabbing myself with tiny screwdrivers to prove it...)