Photo courtesy of National Vision.

It’s said that global problems need global solutions. And with estimates that hundreds of millions of people worldwide need a pair of eyeglasses to achieve merely “good” vision, solution-oriented retailers are requisite to aiding what the eyewear industry refers to as a “global public health vision crisis.”

For companies such as National Vision Inc., corporate parent of America’s Best Contacts and Eyeglasses, success is measured in numbers and in impact. The firm has achieved 66 consecutive quarters of positive comparable store sales growth and is touted as the fastest growing optical retailer in the U.S. It’s also one of the most giving. By way of National Vision’s “Frames for the World” division, more than 300,000 individuals have received glasses via donations from various frame manufacturers and optical chains. And its 20/20 Quest, a charitable foundation that provides screenings, eye exams, eyeglasses and refractive error solutions to “optically underserved” consumers in the U.S. and developing countries, has helped over 42 million people internationally through its partnerships with organizations and individuals.

Collectively, National Vision’s efforts have enabled close to 900,000 people to see and indirectly helped improve the vision of approximately 14 million people worldwide to date, according to the company. Here, Reade Fahs, the chief executive officer at National Vision, discusses the importance of affordable eyewear and the brand’s “philanthropic engine.”

WWD: Where is National Vision seeing the growth in its business? Is the company planning more store openings?

Reade Fahs: National Vision is the fastest growing of the large U.S. optical retailers and a leader in the value segment of the domestic optical market. Our mission is to make quality eye care and eyewear affordable and accessible to all Americans. We achieve this by providing low-cost eye exams, eyeglasses and contact lenses to cost-conscious consumers. We deliver exceptional prices and convenience to our customers, with an opening price point that strives to be among the lowest in the industry. We operate five retail brands: America’s Best Contacts and Eyeglasses, Eyeglass World, Vision Centers inside select Walmart stores, Vista Opticals on select military bases and inside Fred Meyer stores. Additionally, we operate several e-commerce Web sites, including aclens.com, discountglasses.com and discountcontactlenses.com.

We recently reported that the second quarter of this year represented our 66th consecutive quarter of positive comparable store sales growth — a streak that began over 16 years ago when the current management team started forming at National Vision. We are not aware of any other retailer in America that has delivered such a long and consistent track record of positive comparable sales trends.

Our success is driven by our low prices, convenient locations, a broad assortment of branded and private label merchandise, and the high levels of in-store service provided by our well-trained store associates and optometrists. Our bundled offers, including two pairs of eyeglasses plus an eye exam for $69.95 at America’s Best and two pairs of eyeglasses for $78 at Eyeglass World, represent among the lowest price offerings available.

We have opened over 500 stores in the past dozen years, in recent years opening 75 new stores each year. We will continue this growth and plan to again open 75 new stores next year. As we look out to 2019, the pipeline for locations looks strong. We are well positioned to serve our new and existing customers through a diverse portfolio of over 1,000 retail stores across five brands and 20 consumer Web sites.

Reade Fahs, the chief executive officer of National Vision. Photo courtesy of National Vision.  JW Barker Photography

WWD: How are changing consumer demographics affecting sales?

R.F.: Approximately 76 percent of adults in the United States use some form of vision correction. At age 45, the need for vision correction begins to increase significantly, with approximately 88 percent of adults in the U.S. between the ages of 45 and 54 and approximately 90 percent of adults in the U.S. aged 55 and older using vision correction.

As the U.S. population ages and life expectancy increases, we anticipate that the pool of potential customers and opportunities for repeat purchases in the optical retail industry will continue to rise. Given that eyesight deteriorates progressively with age, the aging of the U.S. population should result in incremental sales of eyewear and related accessories.

In addition, due to the proliferation of smartphones, laptops and tablets, the U.S. population has experienced a dramatic increase in the amount of time spent viewing electronic screens. This is anticipated to result in a larger percentage of the population suffering from screen-related vision problems, driving incremental sales of vision correction products. Beyond this, in the past few years, eyeglasses have emerged as vital fashion accessories, which has been a big benefit to the industry.

WWD: What’s driving the demand to be more philanthropic? Is it based on a core business philosophy of the company, or based on consumer demand?

R.F.: While not an issue for wealthier people, the cost of quality eye care is an issue for lower-income Americans — an issue with broad implications. Eyeglasses are a 730-year-old technology involving two small pieces of cut plastic that are held in front of the eyes by three small pieces of plastic or metal. They can no longer be regarded as “new technology.” That is why they are a tremendous expense today — often $500 to $1,000 or more for a single pair — which makes no sense for everyday budget-conscious Americans.

It is precisely in this place that National Vision makes a significant difference. We exist to make eye care and eyewear more affordable and accessible by providing the best price/value equation in U.S. optics. We think of ourselves as a fast-growing business engine fueling a fast-growing philanthropic engine.

We are striving to create solutions to the global optical health crisis, ultimately enabling more people to get the eye care and eyewear they need. As one of the largest optical retailers, we play a unique leadership role in convening, connecting and helping to create an optical health “ecosystem” that is working to solve the public health vision crisis across the globe. We are proud to partner with and support such groups as VisionSpring, RestoringVision, VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity), OneSight, our own Frames for the World nonprofit and Boys and Girls Clubs of America in these efforts. Our philanthropic activities are focused on the optically underserved in both the United States and the developing world. Through our many charitable partnerships, we have directly assisted approximately 900,000 individuals to see and have indirectly contributed to improving the vision of approximately 15 million individuals globally to date.

Photo courtesy of National Vision. 

WWD: What are some of the challenges facing the “global public health vision crisis?”

R.F.: The biggest issues facing the global public health vision crisis are awareness, cost and access to quality eye care. We are keenly focused on reducing cost and increasing access to eye care through our core business and our philanthropic activities. For the approximately 76 percent of adult Americans who require some form of vision correction, their eyeglasses or contacts are vital to their day-to-day existence. Most people simply cannot function without them.

Eye exams, beyond providing a prescription for eyeglasses and contact lenses, can detect hundreds of potential health concerns, ranging from eye diseases and general health, to life-threatening conditions such as brain tumors and aneurysms. This is why regular eye exams are so critically important; however, for many people, especially the lower-income and the uninsured, eye exams are an expensive, unfamiliar and intimidating experience.

In addition to health, eyeglasses themselves provide a life-changing benefit — allowing people to work, learn, perform daily tasks, drive safely and to appreciate the world around them. They also have an effect on our future. Eye care is especially important for children. We know that behavior, school performance, self-esteem and many other qualities that impact a child’s success can be tied to a child’s ability to see clearly. Undiagnosed eye conditions have a direct and lasting impact on a child’s performance in school and the success of future generations.

WWD: How would you describe your leadership style?

R.F.: I strive to foster cultures and environments that are life-giving (versus the life-sucking norm) where people can be successful while being themselves and where they leave work each day feeling like bigger people who have done some good in the world. I have found that when people feel confident and proud they tend to do work that is worthy of admiration.

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