Online Optical Retailers Talk Shop

By
By Delia Paunescu: Assistant Editor


 


Selling eyeglasses online is one of the most challenging issues optical has faced in quite some time. Though the divide between brick and click is narrowing in some quarters, online players are still considered a stepchild by many in the industry. Online retailers, or e-tailers, are often thought to be taking business away from traditional ODs and opticians, and are still perceived by many as an “unauthorized” channel that is strictly promotionally priced. But is that really true? And just how does selling glasses work on the internet?

Be they ODs, opticians or former executives at various optical companies, most of the bigger e-tailers have industry experience. Though the reasons they took eyeglasses online vary, one thing rings true: all emphasize great customer service, are quick to discuss their success both on and away from the web and spread their reach via social media. But despite their confidence, internet retailers tell VM they are keenly aware of the stigma they face. Since the product requires significant customization, these companies focus on making their customer happy at any cost.

Several of the larger players started out in contact lenses. Both Coastal Contacts (now Coastal) and 1-800-Contacts began by fulfilling orders for CLs before moving into the eyewear spectrum. For these companies, the initial buyer pool was already in place as contact lens customers were the first to purchase a pair of glasses from their newer sites.

Similar to a store or dispensary’s interior design, an e-commerce-enabled website is the retail space in which a customer shops. It can induce a feeling of welcome and calm, or just the opposite. Several e-tailers are re-examining how they present choices and information in that space.

Even more important than design is the merchandise. Just what frames are selling on the internet? Similar to the brick-and-mortar sector, eyewear selection online runs the gamut of styles and price points. Most optical e-tailers speak of providing a wider selection at lower cost, though a few, like Glasses.com, simply want to provide a selection to those customers without direct access to certain brands and frame styles. And when it comes to processing Rx lenses, online players are pretty evenly split between outsourcing the work and keeping full control of the lens process with their own in-house labs.

“The big difference between us and brick and mortar is that our customers can’t physically try on the frames,” Zenni Optical’s Levente Laczay said. This is the challenge all online retailers face, regardless of product. Almost all have opted to include a virtual try-on (VTO) system on their sites, some built in-house and others outsourced. Others are developing at-home try-on systems.

So what does the future hold for these online players? With the web as amorphous as ever, internet retailers have their sights on expanded inventory, better customer interaction and faster shipping.

In this roundup of major optical e-tailers, nine such sites explain their appeal to a more general consumer. While the January Front Lines feature on “The Seenster Set” introduced a very particular type of web retailer in the industry, focusing on contemporary customers with private label product, the companies featured here have a wider scope. They told VM how they are handling brand development, frame selection, lens finishing and other issues in 2012.

EYEGLASSES.COM
 
Eyeglasses.com started in 1999 with a vision of manifesting a new type of service philosophy: “Our Vision is Service,” said CEO Mark Agnew. “We do not provide the same service as a regular retail dispensary and most opticians would say our service level must be lower than theirs, because we are incapable of doing fitting, seg heights and PD measurements. However, most customers come to us because they received poor service at a local optical shop.” He added, “We are the only online eyewear store with an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, and we have held that since 2001.”

While Agnew boasts 200,000 sku inventory, the company works on a keystone markup and does not accept insurance, but does offer a 30-day money back guarantee on frames and a one-time free redo on lenses. The site, Agnew said, uses an Essilor lab for the majority of its work.

The company’s virtual try-on app is the only one that “scales” eyeglass frames to the customers’ head, Agnew stated. “On all the other VTO applications out there, the frame image is not scaled to the user’s head, so you don’t really know whether that 54mm frame is going to be too big for you when you receive it. This ‘scaling’ feature is patented, which is why nobody else can do it.”

FRAMESDIRECT.COM
 
Frames Direct’s website tells the story of partners Dhavid Cooper, OD, and Guy Hodgson, OD, who started a chain of successful optometric practices in Houston before assembling a small team to launch their site 15 years ago. “We wanted a way to provide patients with better selection and more competitive pricing than we could offer in our brick and mortar.” The doctors currently boast “more than a million satisfied customers.” Essilor acquired a majority stake in the company in 2010. According to marketing, merchandising and product manager Clotilde Bedoya, 80 percent of FramesDirect’s sales today come from customers based in the U.S., with the rest from customers in Canada, Brazil, Australia, and the U.K.

Bedoya said of Frames Direct: “Since we sell mostly designer brands, our site reflects the fashion positioning of those brands. We use a clean white background to make the products stand out and make searching easy with a ‘Guide Me’ feature that helps consumers narrow down their choices from the 100,000 products we carry.”

The company uses Essilor’s products for plastic, polycarbonate and high-index lenses and a premium AR coating.

Frames Direct does have a try-on tool but also encourages customers to use the printable PD measuring stick for customers to assure fit of their over 400 major brands. The company sells no private labels and purchases their frames from major vendors. Branded plano and prescription sunglasses are also available. “We follow brand guidelines and offer products at the suggested retail price or offer them at a discount depending on the brands. We also run different promotions throughout the year,” Bedoya explained.

Going forward, Frames Direct looks to increase its status in search engines through pay per click. “We launched our redesigned site at the beginning of 2011 and keep making enhancements to improve conversion. In particular, we launched a new lens recommender mid-2011 in order to make the lens selection easier for customers,” Bedoya explained

GLASSESUSA.COM

 
GlassesUSA.com launched in January 2009. The company was established to address the need for quality prescription glasses in the online field and to position itself as a viable alternative to brick-and-mortar stores by focusing corporate efforts on production and service, according to Jay Engelmayer, vice president of business development. “Our business philosophy can be summed up into three values: our vision is to change the way people buy eyeglasses; our mission is to guarantee the highest quality optical products at the most affordable prices in the fastest time-span possible with the best service throughout and beyond the entire process; and our goal is to become the most significant online presence in the prescription optical market,” he explained.

The site believes in being “friendly from the first glance.” Engelmayer said theirs was built so visitors can easily find what they are looking for and designed to enable customers to choose their frames using one or more user-defined parameters. “The store is always a work in progress. Our focus from the beginning was on service, and service begins the instant the customer enters our store,” he said.

Glasses USA continues to advocate getting a prescription from an ophthalmologist or optometrist and having that doctor include the PD. For customers who do not have a PD and do not want to go and get one, though, the site offers a downloadable PD ruler. “Part of our 2012 development is a unique tool that will measure your PD from a smartphone. This should launch in the next few months,” Engelmayer said. A virtual mirror is present throughout one’s time online, the flow enabling customers to “try-on” various frames. But to help the customer find the best frame for their face as well as personality, the company created their Virtual Optician, a feature Engelmayer said is unique in the industry.

The company acquires their frames through vendors that supply both designer and generic brands. “We do work with a manufacturer to develop private label brands Yoshi Ayaka, iSee and Reece Jakob, among others,” Engelmayer said, adding that the company is in the process of expanding to include more designers and products. “All frames can be made into plano or prescription sunglasses using color tinted or polarized lenses. It was only recently that we began to offer pre-fab sunglasses,” he said. Glasses USA owns a state-of-the-art, in-house, fully automated laboratory and offers various combinations of lens materials and coatings for customers to choose.

Engelmayer believes the company’s growth is the result of providing great service and delivering a high quality product to his customers. “Referrals are a significant force in our overall sales; couple that with 28 percent of sales coming from existing customers. As with every aspect of our business, service is an in-house department staffed with, well-trained, full-time employees. They operate with a proprietary system that enables them to know exactly where a specific order is at any given moment,” he said.

“We also developed a Vision Benefit Plan which we launched late in 2011. In the less than three months it has been active we have seen a spike in sales and traffic that has remained consistent. The driving force behind our mission and is to do for the consumer and this industry what Amazon did for books and eBay did for yard sales. I believe we are well on our way to getting there,” Engelmayer said.

VINTAGEOPTICALSHOP.COM

 
All of Vintage Optical Shop’s frames are antique and come from estate sales, auctions, flea markets and antique dealers. “We got started purchasing some antique eyeglass frames for ourselves to wear and selling the frames that didn’t fit on eBay. We realized that there was a market and started selling online, slowly growing to our own website. We aim to be at the crossroads of history and technology, bringing eyewear of the past to the web of 2012. Antiques are usually sold in antiquated forms like flea markets and auctions. We aim to change that by having the most user friendly and technologically advanced website with a great selection of frames spanning over 100 years, making them readily available to anyone, worldwide,” said Levi Shloush, owner and CEO of VintageOpticalShop.com. “Our site has an antique feel because we wanted it to correspond to the age of our products yet be as user-friendly and technologically advanced as possible,” he added.

Frames are priced at the $100-$150 range to be affordable without compromising on condition. While the site does not fill prescriptions, they do have some vintage and antique sunglasses. “The lenses are old and not always UV protected,” Shloush pointed out.

For his company, it’s all about the trend. “People from different cultures are constantly looking for different styles of vintage frames. There has lately been a big surge in interest for 1960s frames in Japan as well as cat eye glasses in Australia. It’s hard to know what will be the next trend to which people or what causes it.” Shloush added, “We need to sense these things as they are happening in order to fully understand and serve our customers.”

In doing so, Vintage Optical Shop spends a lot of time on Facebook, Twitter, etc. “Social media is rapidly changing and we are constantly looking for the hottest sites. Of late there has been much action on Pinterest,” Shloush said.

EYEGLASSDIRECT.COM
 
“We started eight years ago in the basement of my house. We try to target all age groups and income ranges and our customers today range from teenagers to wealthy business owners,” Eyeglass Direct owner Randy Appelbaum told VM. “With high quality, great customer service and great pricing, people will always find you.” To help customers come his way, Eyeglass Direct uses direct e-mailing and Google ads.

Appelbaum made his site easy to use and simple. According to him, it should educate customers but never over sell. While not offering designer brands, Appelbaum is confident in the metal, plastic, flex, titanium and rimless titanium and kids’ frames available. The company believes it’s found “a happy medium” in using an outside lab for surfacing and doing all the finished work at their own lab. The site recently added high-end lenses and coatings because, “people want to have better vision and they do not mind paying extra for better lenses. With our deep discount pricing, there is already a big savings for the customer,” he explained.

Eyeglass Direct encourages customers to have a doctor or optician measure their PD.

ZENNIOPTICAL.COM

 
According to owner Levente Laczay, Zenni Optical is always asking: what does it cost to make a frame and still make a minimum amount of profit? “We are not a nonprofit, we do make a profit. But if we can make it for $6 and sell it for $7, why not? Our goal is to provide as high quality eyeglasses as inexpensively as possible for people who can’t afford expensive ones. This is especially great for kids when they break them all the time. Even $100 is a lot to a single mother if she has to buy a new pair every few months,” he explained.

Vertically integrated with their own factory, Zenni Optical directly controls the entire manufacturing process and says it is certified by U.S. FDA inspectors. Laczay said, “We make, we sell, direct to retail customer. The way we differed was because we make everything internally. We pioneered the way of doing everything in China because you can save another $15 to $20 by having lenses cut and shaved there.

“Our factory in China only makes frames for us,” Laczay added about Zenni Optical’s private label collections. “We’re constantly expanding our availability in terms of lenses or frames.” Currently, Zenni Optical offers 4,000 different frame options and would like to grow to 5,000 or 6,000 frames. Laczay also recently brought in Transitions lenses because of the brand’s strong name. “Customers like it,” he said. For 2012, sunglasses are the focus at Zenni Optical. Until now, frames could be tinted to make them into prescription sun but Laczay is looking to add frames that will be sun-exclusive.

“When you buy a frame from us, we guarantee that our prescription is accurate. If you get it and you don’t like it, for whatever reason, you can get a 50 percent refund within 30 days. They are custom made products so we can’t resell it,” Laczay explained. Despite the return policy, he finds that most buyers will return to Zenni Optical. “Once someone becomes a customer, they’ll end up being repeat buyers 90-plus percent of the time. We see it as a lifetime relationship. We want your business and your family’s business and your friend’s,” Laczay admitted.

GLASSES.COM
 
“Online is a scary space because a lot of the competition out there now feels like a race to the bottom. We want to build brands,” John Graham, senior vice president and general manager of Glasses.com, told VM in an exclusive interview. “We’re interested in developing a value proposition so brands see us as complementary to brick and mortar. We can tell a brand’s story much better online—it’s not just a logo on a wall. On the web, you can include video, photos, etc.” A new and separate venture from 1-800-Contacts, the Glasses.com site was created in June of 2011.

For Glasses.com, the goal is to bring designer frames where they might not be sold. Graham explained that the company works with well-known manufacturers and brands to maintain brand integrity and keep price points at a level that is competitive on the internet, but also keeping with MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail price). “Brands are important to people, especially in the sunglass market, and we’re proud to carry the lines we do,” he said, adding that Glasses.com curates every frame and collection offering. “We don’t want to create confusion. We want every collection to have a reason.” The site also offers three lines of private label glasses at a more value conscious price point.

Graham said the company uses a network of Carl Zeiss labs for their lenses and has also outsourced their virtual try-on.

As the newest among these online retailers, Glasses.com is focused on helping their customer “find a product she loves.” (Graham uses his words carefully, adding that the company’s customer tends to skew female). They are looking to expand present selection, improve the try-on process and create a web experience that is more aligned to the browsing/shopping feeling found in brick-and-mortar stores. “Merchandizing is phenomenally important online,” he added.

EYEWEAR2U.COM

 
John Morris, founder of Eyewear2U.com, built and managed 12 optometry offices in Southern California for a decade before the concept of developing an internet-based optical business was born. “I was struck with the relatively un-modern business atmosphere of the typical dispensary. I wanted to use emerging web-based technologies to capitalize on basic market inefficiencies that still exist in retail optical,” he said. According to him, EyeWear2U is in its second phase, creating a new retail business that will not just present frames and lenses, but will actually service these customers at precisely the moment and place they wish. “EyeWear2U’s background in consumer marketing heightens our attentiveness to develop a solid relationship with our customers, key suppliers and service providers,” Morris added.

The e-tailer’s site architecture is open, clean, easily used and specifically designed to address key consumer areas necessary to replicate the experience of an optical brick-and-mortar business, but without the limitation of frame selection and the time needed for traveling back and forward to order and then pick up their eyewear, Morris told VM.

Over several years, Eyewear2u has developed accounts with over 90 major frame manufacturers and also sells their own private label frames, offering the latter for next-day service, ranging in price from $34.95 to $99. “We respect the need for our manufacturers to maintain a certain retail value,” Morris said. “Most of the top brands are priced to insure that we don’t violate the pricing standards set by the manufacturers and their brand managers.” Prescription sunglasses are also available and the company relies on several outside labs “depending on the order.” According to Morris, lens pricing is done in ratio to the company’s gross margin in order to maintain business model profit projections.

While Eyewear2U always has their mind on increasing product selection, the immediate goal is upgrading their site’s programming to “accommodate a more robust consumer environment and give EyeWear2u the ability to bring special orders and pricing to its customers on a more one-to-one basis.” Morris also plans to develop a stronger presence in social media.

COASTAL.COM

 
Aaron Magness, vice president of marketing for Coastal, explained that the company formerly known as Coastal Contacts rolled out their glasses offering in 2010. “We had glasses available as early as 2009, but we didn’t market them until we were sure we had the best possible quality for our customers.”

At Coastal, the view toward frames is slightly different as the company looks to provide “what’s best for the customer and not just the view we want to push onto them.” Through Coastal’s wide-reaching social network, real time opinions from existing customers are more easily accelerated. In fact, of Coastal’s present eyeglass customers worldwide, Magness cited data which shows that 22 percent will purchase again within six months, while 78 percent will buy again within 24 months. “It’s a very exciting position to be in because we’re seeing great numbers year over year and we’re still growing very quickly,” he said. To accommodate their international expansion, the publicly-traded Canadian company (COA:CN) invested $8 million into their own Vancouver optical lab last year alone. A U.S.-only “First Pair Free” program, one that’s ongoing, encourages CL purchasers to try a pair from a selection of frames, either private label or brand name. “We want to take away the barriers of buying glasses online and are willing to offer up that experience. We’re confident we can blow customers away.”