By: Eli Frishman | Business  | 

Online Optical: Seeing Things Differently

The very first pair of glasses were said to have been invented over 700 years ago. These proto-glasses were essentially two stones connected with a metal wire that balanced on wearer’s nose. While there have been various improvements in the corrective capabilities of glasses, little has changed in their overall structure. What has changed dramatically, however, is the glasses industry. In the past 20 years, with the rise of the internet, the once heavily monopolized industry now has to compete with online glasses providers, with some companies even selling prescription lenses for less than the cost of a sandwich at Nagel Bagel. For the 60 percent of the population who wears glasses, online optical providers are changing the way they see the world, literally.

Beyond their practical function, glasses have historically been a style accessory, with some providers selling high-end frames costing in the thousands. Various name brand glasses and optical centers such as Ray Bans, Oakley and Lens Crafters, are all owned by the same company, Luxottica. In addition to their own brands, Luxottica also has licensing rights to manufacture glasses for luxury brands such as Burberry, Ralph Lauren and Versace. In 2017, Luxottica’s own brands, together with their licensing deals, combined to make up 60 percent of all glasses sold in the U.S., effectively allowing Luxottica to control market prices for glasses.

In 2010, this monopoly caused a couple of college students to start the online retailer now known as Warby Parker. According to the Warby Parker website, the idea came to them when one of the company’s founding members lost his glasses on a backpacking trip. The cost of replacing them was so much that this cash-strapped college student was forced to spend his first semester of grad school squinting during lectures.

In a Forbes Magazine article from 2016, Neil Blumenthal, Warby’s Co-CEO, explained their original business model: “It was really about bypassing the middle men that would mark-up lenses 3-5x what they cost, so we could transfer all of that cost directly to consumers and save them money.” Thus, buyers would purchase glasses directly from the Warby Parker website and have them delivered straight to their homes.

While the idea was innovative, the founders were concerned that customers would be hesitant to purchase from Warby because they wouldn’t actually be able to see how the frames would fit on their faces. To solve this issue, Warby has a variety of resources including uploading your picture to the website, virtually trying the lenses on. Warby also allows customers a home try-on program where customers can order five frames for free and select the one that suits them best.

Surprisingly, Warby’s success has brought their once exclusively online platform back into brick and mortar stores. In 2013, Warby opened up its first retail store and by the end of 2018, that number was approaching 100. The decision to move “offline” was primarily to attract customers who prefer the traditional glasses shopping experience and to gain insight into customer shopping habits. The online-to-offline business trend is not unique to Warby, in fact many once exclusively online startups now have numerous physical locations, a phenomenon detailed in Sarah Torgueman’s “Virtual Reality Bringing You Back to Brick and-Mortar Retail.”

While an average pair of prescription Warby Parker glasses costs between $95-$145, which is far less than many of Luxottica’s brands, some online optical companies such as Zennis offers low-cost prescription frames starting at even five dollars. Benji Morris (YC ‘20) has taken advantage of the pricing and style options provided by online optical, noting, “The right pair of glasses can turn an okay outfit into a perfect one, and given the affordability that online optical provides, I’ve bought probably 13 pairs in the past year for under 75 dollars, for various occasions and styles.” For Morris, online optical has turned glasses into a style accessory much like a tie where purchases are frequent and relatively inexpensive.

Yet, even as the internet has made glasses extremely affordable, in 2017, only 4.2 percent of total glasses were sold online. This is primarily because eye exams are done in a physical location and many customers value the convenience of getting their glasses at the same place where they get their prescription. However, a company called Opternative has developed a fully online eye examination. Currently, the FDA has yet to approve of Opternatives’s eye examinations, but if that changes, online optical could one day constitute a majority of glasses sales.

While the glasses industry persisted for many years with outrageous prices for inexpensive materials, it was not immune to developments in production methods and has been disrupted by various online providers. Although the thought of using your computer for an eye exam may seem a little too futuristic, it might just be around the corner.


Photo Credit:Wikimedia Commons

Photo Caption: An increased number of people are purchasing glasses from online retailers.