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Customer Experience

The future of online eyewear

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Melding together elements from the fashion and health industries, could this e commerce business model revolutionise the world of optometry?

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that one company has reinvented the operating model for its entire sector, particularly as it can take a period of years before a new model can demonstrate its profitability. Amazon is a case in point. But one e-commerce eyewear model to keep an eye on is North America’s Warby Parker.

There are already a lot of eyewear shops to choose from in Australian shopping centres. On average there’s 4.5 of them, making them almost as numerous as hairdressers. Such competition would normally engender significant differences in market positioning; styles, service and prices, yet most eyewear shops are as similar as McDonald’s. This is because competition is to a large extent an illusion − ownership of the various store names is quite concentrated among a couple of major companies. Moreover, these companies are vertically integrated – they control a lot of their product and this helps them to achieve robust margins.

man wearing reading glasses

Seeing clearly

If you’ve ever been into one of these stores as a customer you’ll probably have mixed feelings about the experience. The eyewear industry occupies a unique position at the intersection of health and fashion; it’s an entrepreneurial business and professional service at the same time. With no church-and-state separation between optometrist and retailer it’s easy for the customer to feel vulnerable to exploitation, particularly as pricing tends to be non-transparent with staff pushing particular merchandise.

In 2010 some university students in the USA decided to shake things up. They created Warby Parker, which is now successfully executing ‘disintermediation’ − removing the middleman between manufacturer and customer. Warby Parker designs and sources its own private-label eyewear. It sells mostly online and provides a truly stunning customer experience.

The online equivalent

I tested the Warby Parker model myself recently and here is how it works. First I had to go to a live optometrist to get a prescription, which I then photographed and uploaded to the Warby Parker site.

I encountered an unexpected hitch right away. To correctly manufacture glasses, the factory needs to know not only the prescription for the lens but the distance between the centre of the wearer’s pupils called the ‘interpupillary distance’ (IPD). Most optometrists at regular eyewear stores will not give the customer his IPD even if requested. This, they hope, will discourage the customer from purchasing glasses online (although that’s not the reason you’re likely to get if you ask the optometrist).

Not to worry though because Warby Parker has a neat workaround with the help of your computer’s webcam and the magnetic strip on the reverse side of your credit card. Holding the back-to-front card horizontally under your nose in front of the webcam, you use the arrow keys on your keyboard to manipulate on-screen markers until they are directly under the centre of each pupil. Then you snap the photograph and you’re all done with the technicalities.

Virtual spectacles

Now you can try on glasses in a virtual booth to see yourself as you will look in each pair. Once having made the choice and gone through the checkout process, shipping takes about the same amount of time as it would if ordering from a conventional eyewear store.

Warby Parker’s glasses are of designer quality and sell for about US$95 a pair including free shipping within the US. Although the virtual recognition technology allows customers to try on glasses online, those who prefer to do it the old way can. For North American and Canadian customers, Warby Parker will send five frames to try on for five days free of charge.

The other aspect of the experience that many consumers find appealing is that the company donates one pair of glasses to charity for each pair purchased, a cool twist on the typical ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ model.

The verdict:

For me, the Warby Parker experience was amazing. The product was inexpensive, high-quality and because of the virtual recognition technology, well-fitted. The whole purchase and shipping process was outstanding.

Despite the emergence of online models like Warby Parker’s, the eyewear industry has been slow to respond in the US and impervious in Australia. (Warby Parker only ships within the USA and to Canada.) But looking ahead a couple of years, it’s difficult to see the current setup being sustainable in the face of the dazzling online technology that is set to turn this industry upside down.

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