SCREEN TEST
HIGH-END SUNGLASSES ARE FINDING THEIR NICHE IN ONLINE SALES, TRY-ON FACTOR NOTWITHSTANDING.

Megastar Tom Cruise dons a pair of Oakley’s X-Metal Romeo sunglasses in “Mission Impossible 2,” and the frames quickly become one of the hottest looks of the season.
That consumers can easily make such a connection between an aspirational screen image and a product sale should not be a major revelation to players in the sunglass business.
But what is raising eyebrows among many eyewear marketers these days is that the frames made famous by Cruise, and other high-end styles as well, are selling briskly on the Internet, despite the widely held belief that the try-on factor is indispensable to closing a purchase of designer or status sunglasses.
In fact, sales of $100-plus sunglasses are growing quickly on sites like SunglassHut.com and Ashford.com. It is but one indication that the rapidly changing e-commerce side of the eyewear business bears close watching. Issues such as consolidation and the application of intriguing cyber-merchandising technologies are also quickly altering the category’s landscape, as the top players hone their strategies for success in the highly competitive Internet arena.
One such leader is SunglassHut.com, the e-commerce version of the well-known specialty sunglass retailer of the same name, with nearly 2,000 retail locations worldwide. In this case, at least, a direct link to the on-land retail world could be a major factor in the level of comfort exhibited by online eyewear purchasers.
“One of our greatest advantages is that we are a click-and-mortar concept,” said John X. Watson, president and chief executive officer of Sunglass Hut, based in Coral Gables, Fla. “Consumers like the idea of buying from a trusted retailer which supports the [Web] site through its retail shops, with services like repairs, exchanges and information.” The retail outlets also give the company an opportunity to market its Web sites to customers at minimal cost, Watson added.
Currently, e-commerce sales represent a “very small” percentage of Sunglass Hut’s sales, which totaled $635.6 million in fiscal 1999 and reflected a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year.
He anticipates that number will grow; however, volume percentages are not necessarily reflective of the online channel’s importance overall to the company. Indeed, Sunglass Hut operates five e-commerce sites, including Shades.com, which it acquired in January 1999, and SunglassHut.au, developed to service its Australian and Pacific Rim customers. A European Sunglass Hut Web site is slated to launch this fall, which will back up e-commerce with local fulfillment and local pricing out of the U.K.
Watson said two conditions are necessary for a successful sunglass e-commerce site: flow of new products and informative content.
“Sunglasses are a fashion business, and it’s important to have fresh merchandise all the time,” he said.
SunglassHut.com offers 32 sunglass brands at full price, with the average sale exceeding $100. Sister site Shades.com presents 16 brands, sold mostly at a discount.
Watson predicted that consolidation is bound to continue to transform the competitive atmosphere among sunglass e-commerce sites. “As this industry matures, customers will expect more, and everyone will have to deliver on all levels to succeed,” he said.
One company that has been hot on the acquisition trail is Eyecity.com Inc. based in Plainview, N.Y. Over the past 18 months, the firm has acquired Peepers.com, Eyeglassplace.com, Sunglasssite.com, Opticalsite.com and Binoculars.com.
However, despite its appetite for eyewear e-commerce sites, Eyecity.com does not envision the Internet in the long term as a deciding factor in retail eyewear transactions, and has been shifting its focus to concentrate on serving the eyecare industry.
“We are developing thousands of Web sites for optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians, and we supply them with product selection and service,” explained Mark Levin, president and ceo of Eyecity.com. “The future of e-commerce is not in sunglass e-tailers, because they have to spend too much money in building their brands and driving traffic to their sites. The future is in empowering the eyewear business to do what they do best, and that is selling eyewear.”
While Levin said he doesn’t see e-commerce playing a major direct role in retail sunglass sales, he does expect the Internet to spur on-land buying. “The sunglass business at retail will thrive even more, now that consumers can obtain greater information through the Internet. They can become better educated on all their options,” Levin explained.
Started in May 1996, Eyecity.com now features more than 50 sunglass brands. Levin pointed to Revo, Ray-Ban and Maui Jim as the best-selling brands. He described his customer as a hybrid of fashion and function-oriented consumers, as well as sports enthusiasts. About 65 percent of buyers currently are male, he added.
Whatever its eventual fate vis-a-vis the Internet, the sunglasses category is at present generating significant revenues for Ashford.com, the two-year-old luxury e-tailer based in Houston. The company expects to do more than $4 million in sunglass volume in 2000, according to ceo Kenny Kurtzman.
The site offers 40 sunglass brands at full price, with an average retail around $120. The top-selling brands are Oakley, IceTech, Maui Jim, Gargoyles and Costa Del Mar. Ashford.com plans several initiatives to enhance site functionality and service, thus fostering sunglass sales growth this year, said Kurtzman. In the fall, the company will start offering prescription eyewear that can be delivered within 72 hours of the order, he said. Ashford.com is also exploring Try-On technology, which allows consumers to scan a picture of themselves into the computer and then virtually try on different styles on the screen.
A few higher-end sunglass brands have established their own Internet sites and are selling directly to consumers. Oakley, for one, generated sales of about $1 million for the first quarter of this year on its site, according to Lance Allega, manager of corporate communications for Oakley Inc.
Allega said the Oakley collection is also sold on Ashford.com, FogDog.com and SunglassHut.com. He, too, said recent gains in online sales, while interesting, do not signal a sea change in sunglass shopping.
“Consumers use the Internet as an online catalog,” Allega said. “Some end up buying from us and others purchase in stores. Sunglasses are a high-fashion item, and some people still feel the need to try them on.”

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