Jessica Rowbury browses along the shelves of the first ever optics and photonics shop, which opened in May in an Oxfordshire science centre in the UK
High street shops might be suffering from consumers buying online, but in the photonics world pretty much all laser and optical components are ordered from companies remotely. In May, though, a shop for the laser and research markets was opened in the UK, possibly the first of its kind in the industry. The walk-in facility stocks products such as lasers, positioning equipment, safety equipment, and IR cameras available for off-the-shelf purchase.
The Laser Support Services facility, located on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, was set up in order to offer a more user-friendly method of buying optical components as, just like at trade shows, customers are able to view, handle and even try items before they purchase.
Laser Support Services has been supplying lasers and laser equipment since its launch in 1990. One reason for opening the new walk-in facility, as Grahame Rogers, managing director of the company, explained, was to mimic the way that products are promoted when exhibiting at a trade show: ‘[Laser Support Services] have an opportunity once every few weeks, or once a month, to show some of our products on a tabletop at an exhibition such as Photonex,’ he said. ‘If I was to put myself in the shoes of the end-user, in order to get a product I have to search online, find a company who can sell me that product, contact them, request a quotation, wait for a quotation to come back. I then have to place an order.’
In contrast to this time-consuming method of purchasing, a walk-in facility offers a friendly and effective way to promote products to the end user, Rogers added: ‘It enables people to walk into one place, where there is a host of different products, to handle the products, to see whether or not it is what they really want. And then either purchase at that point or take away a quotation.’ In addition, having the stock on site and all in one place allows for quick delivery to the UK and Europe.
Since the facility’s opening earlier in the year, the new approach to selling optical products has already proven effective. ‘We have sold products ranging from 50µm apertures to vertical translation stages; people have walked in and walked out with products, so it is proving that the concept works.
Because researchers make up the biggest customer base, it is important to have a wide selection of items on offer, Rogers pointed out: ‘When we deal with research companies, you’re looking for a wider portfolio of product with the knowledge that they are not all going to go at once.’ The company has expanded its product line since the retail unit opened, to include components from RedWave Labs, also located in Harwell, and LewVac, whose full stock of HV and UHV components for vacuum technology appeared in the store in July. And, there are further plans to expand, Rogers noted: ‘We are currently expanding the range; we want to offer consumables as well as components,’ he said. ‘To that end, we are bringing in the simpler low value items such as O-rings, gaskets − and anything else that the researcher would want.’
The location of the facility in the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus has been ideal for serving the research markets. ‘The Harwell site employs a large number of scientists and engineers. It is within a couple of hours of over 50 per cent of the UK’s research [community], and it is in easy reach of engineering companies, high-tech companies in the home counties and the south east [of the UK],’ Rogers said. The Harwell campus has also released plans for further expansion and improvement, stating that the Harwell Oxford campus has the ‘exciting potential to become a much larger world-class science, innovation and business location.’ This was also an incentive for choosing this location for the retail unit, said Rogers: ‘The expansion plans of the Harwell Oxford site were also very attractive, and we hope to grow with them.’
Researchers also benefit from the ability to view, handle and even try products before they buy. ‘Researchers choose products to suit their own applications rather than what manufacturers make,’ Rogers pointed out. ‘They can pick the products up, they can touch them, they can visualise if two or three different products would go together for their experiment. In a lot of cases I am happy for the customer to take products away to see if they are going to work in their environment before they commit to buying it.’
In addition, the ability to obtain products from the facility faster than what is possible online is also a large advantage for scientists on a tight work schedule. ‘More often than not there are visiting scientists who are taking part in experiments and have deadlines. Our products are on sale for immediate collection from the facility,’ Rogers added.