Eyewear, in the last decade, has seen relatively few disruptive forces since the 2010 founding of Warby Parker. Meanwhile, the larger accessories industry is seeing waves of change with new handbag and shoe brands that offer consumers a high-fashion proposition at a lower cost. Lab-grown diamonds, too, are expected to shake up consumers’ value propositions when it comes to buying jewelry.
In examining eyewear’s methods of commerce, it becomes evident that the industry is something of a complicated, tangled web for brands — simultaneously operating in the health care and fashion spaces. Prescription and sunglasses are both relatively undisrupted, but for different reasons, according to industry experts.
Newcomers have found it difficult to break through in prescription eyewear with meaningful scale, according to Thomas Burkhardt, senior vice president of global brands, marketing and design for Marchon, because “eyewear is still a mix of fashion and health care. There is still the vision care component that is an essential part of the experience. Consumers are looking for advice from trusted partners.”
“Fine jewelry, watches, handbags — you can order it and exchange it — it’s not that close to you from a tactile standpoint,” Stephen Wright, chief commercial officer for Safilo North America, said “Eyewear is intimate, it’s personal.”
The eyewear industry had been cocooned in tradition — with optometry shops and brand license holders long controlling the sector, setting high prices for eyewear lenses and frames, respectively. In 2010, the model was shaken when Warby Parker came on the scene — part of the first wave of direct-to-consumer companies creating a lower-priced, attractive solution in a category that for many people is a necessity. Warby Parker focused purely on the fashion part of the sector, and purely online. Its glasses, still, cost under $200 for a frame and lens set.
Neil Blumenthal, cofounder and co-chief executive officer of Warby Parker, said, “2010 was good timing. We were coming out of the recession of 2008, people were looking to save money. It was incredibly novel to have a direct-to-consumer brand, we had a give-back model — all of these things got us a lot of attention.
“Using the Internet to sell glasses was about bypassing the middle man and avoiding other retailers. The Internet enabled us to do that vastly and relatively inexpensively,” Blumenthal said. The company has since expanded to physical retail — with nearly 90 freestanding stores.
Beyond just a lack of new business models, eyewear fashion trends — unlike in the shoe and handbag spaces — tend to move at a slow pace. Ahlem Manai-Platt, founder of the Los Angeles-based eyewear company Ahlem, said markups and optometry shops have had a profound effect on the evolution of eyewear fashion.
“Eyewear is very conservative. When you are talking about shoes that are fashionable for a cheap price, you are talking about a fashion store that is willing to take a risk and has a client for it,” explained Manai-Platt, who sells her brand in some 400 specialty eyewear stores worldwide.
“Eyewear stores make money on the lenses, not the frames. Their margins are very low without the lenses. As designers, we need to create frames that are easy to fit lenses in, so it’s easy for them to sell. It’s very hard to disrupt the market if you are working in wholesale, because you are playing to very traditional, conservative stores,” she said.
“The majority of glasses in the country are sold through bricks-and-mortar,” Blumenthal said. “In the U.S., men buy a new pair of prescription glasses every 2.2 years and women every 2.1 years. The glasses are a core part of someone’s identity, they wear it everyday. Buying something that infrequently extends the fashion cycle, so trends in optical tend to be slower than in apparel and other accessories.”
While Warby Parker managed to break through the iron gates of eyewear’s behemoth companies, Blumenthal admits that his company’s success is now somewhat controlling the narrative for eyewear start-ups, making it difficult for others to push through. The retailer has quickly scaled, dominating what was once an empty space in the market; it has hired a sizable portion of the eyewear industry’s young talent; its give-back premise has established “good will” with consumers and staff, creating high levels of retention, and the direct-to-consumer space is now far busier than it was at the time of Warby’s launch, making it difficult for new players to stick out.
“It would be really hard for someone to come in and charge less than us for this kind of quality,” Blumenthal said of the competitive landscape.
Sunglasses are not a medical device like prescription eyewear, but are an equally difficult field to crack. Niki Takesh, founder of Takesh eyewear, was able to make a splash in the field two years ago with a heart-shaped frame that went viral on Instagram. She has not unveiled a new style of glasses since, but intends to relaunch her brand this summer.
“I have plenty of friends who have clothing brands, but this is not something that they have any idea about,” Takesh said of designing frames. “They don’t teach this in [fashion] school. It was basically impossible to make a frame that fit everybody’s face.”
Manai-Platt used to sell her sunglass designs in high-end department stores, but has since pulled back on her wholesale business. She found the department store model to be a challenging selling space that leans in favor of megabrands. “The department store associates are not educated enough in eyewear. People basically go straight to buy Gucci or Chanel. If you put Ahlem next to them, made with real gold and handmade in France, people don’t understand it. You need to have well-trained sellers on the floor and the problem is that they don’t have it,” she said.
Blumenthal concluded: “If you are a sunwear-only brand that’s direct-to-consumer, it’s really hard to get significant scale by just having a web site. The biggest issue here is that the distribution is dominated by big players, all the big fashion brands also have distribution. It’s more of a fashion accessory — a logo makes a really big difference.”