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January 23, 2013 11:30 pm
When Mitesh Patel started selling contact lenses online in 2008, his company hit a snag: potential customers did not think such a service existed.
“Their first thought was: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you could buy them from anyone other than your optician’,” says Mr Patel, who quit his job in the City to set up Lenstore with his wife. “It’s a prescription product, so the natural thing is to think that opticians are the only place.”
But once Lenstore got the message across that high street opticians did not enjoy a monopoly in the UK, the business grew rapidly. It has been profitable every year since 2009, recorded revenues of £7m last year, and has attracted more than 100,000 customers.
Lenstore has joined a number of online optical stores that are challenging the dominant high street outlets – and having some success. Sales of eyewear via the web have more than doubled since 2007, and last year accounted for almost a tenth of the market, according to Euromonitor International, the market research company.
They still have some distance to make up, though. Large UK high street chains – such as Vision Express, Specsavers and Boots – still account for the other 90 per cent of sales in a market Euromonitor estimates to be worth £2.3bn a year.
However, this market share will inevitably fall, argues Kevin Cornils, chief executive of Glasses Direct, an online eyewear retailer in the UK.
“I position eyewear as a third wave of ecommerce,” he says. “Books and digital items went first. The second wave was apparel. I would put eyewear in the category after that.”
Glasses Direct works in similar way to “second wave” online fashion retailers, such as Asos, offering free deliveries and returns.
It sends customers a selection of frames, letting them return the ones they don’t like. “There’s no pressure from a salesperson, which is what people like least about the high street,” says Mr Cornils.
But while British consumers have leapt at the chance to buy everything from shoes, books and takeaways online, they are still some way behind international consumers when it comes to eyewear.
Half of all contact lenses in Sweden are sold online and, in the US, online services account for a quarter of all sales.
In the UK, online sales have been limited to 10 per cent, partly by regulation.
The Opticians Act, which governs the industry in the UK, demands that vendors see a physical copy of a prescription before making a sale, and was only loosened to allow the distance-selling of contact lenses in 2005.
In addition, the fact that glasses are a relatively infrequent purchase mean that most buyers have never bought online before.
“There aren’t that many categories where the people are still purchasing online for the first time,” says Mr Cornils.
Customer support, therefore, is central to the buying process.
Unlike most ecommerce outfits, nearly every customer at Glasses Direct speaks to someone at the company before purchasing.
At a typical “etailer”, only one in five customers will do so, points out Mr Cornils.
Then there is the problem of attracting the high street buyer. Neil Saunders, an analyst at Conlumino, the retail research agency, identifies two obstacles.
“Excuse the pun, but the first is visibility,” he says. “There is a neat handover between getting your prescription, then having someone help you choose frames.”
“The second is trust. On eyewear and contacts, people are very sensitive. They want the right prescription and the right quality. Brand names like Specsavers have strong levels of trust. Online players don’t have that – and it’s difficult to build up.”
Some branded opticians see the internet as complementing, rather than competing with, their high street offerings.
“It’s not as much as a threat as for other retail models,” says Jonathan Lawson, chief executive at Vision Express, which has nearly 320 stores in the UK.
“My view is that, unless something fundamentally changes, the vast majority of people need to come in for an eye exam.”
He says that a fifth of sales at Vision Express are online related, and traffic to its website has jumped almost a third, year-on-year.
Others, however, prefer to concentrate on doing business face to face.
A spokesperson for Specsavers said that online is “not a primary focus of the business”.
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