Buying glasses has traditionally followed a predictable flow. Following an optometrist appointment, patients speak with an often commission-incentivized optician about which frames and lenses to spend up to $400 on.
In the 2000s, direct-to-consumer companies like Warby Parker, Zenni Optical and others disrupted the typical customer journey by streamlining the process and selling prescription glasses online at a fraction of the market price. Online eyewear sales have continually outpaced the growth of in-store retailers and more brands have entered the market.
While ecommerce occupied around 10% of the eyeglass market share in 2019, the novel coronavirus pandemic forced brick-and-mortar stores to close, ushering in a new landscape for consumers. Since March, DTC glasses retailers have seen huge spikes in sales. Research from trade association The Vision Council shows that online prescription eyeglass sales in April were double that of April 2019 and remained 60% higher than 2019 in May.
But as things continue to change, these retailers are looking to retain new customers.
Ashley Mills, CEO of The Vision Council, said the shift to buying online has been in the making for over 10 years, but “there is no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the trend of consumers buying eyeglasses online.”
For some DTC glasses retailers, the way to turn these new customers into converts is by doubling down on current strategies of providing a quality product at a competitive price with good customer service and follow-up.
“The current situation is a radical change to the customer experience, but it doesn’t diminish the importance of it,” said Nate Skinner, co-managing director at Stink Studios, a creative agency that’s worked with startups like Casper. “If anything, customers will be more loyal to brands who have provided real, authentic value to them during a time of crisis.”
To some extent, DTC brands have inherent advantages compared to their brick-and-mortar competitors. Georgetown University marketing professor Luc Wathieu said inventory is one of those advantages. “Online, presumably, there is nothing missing on the shelf,” he said.
For Zenni Optical, which sold nearly 6 million pairs of glasses in 2019, that’s a key differentiator. Zenni boasts a robust inventory of over 3,000 frames that it can ship in a short time frame. That’s led to strong consumer retention rates, according to Zenni brand communications officer Sean Pate.
“On average, Zenni’s active customers purchase every six months, and 16% of repeat purchases from customers happen within the same month,” continued Pate. “Our buying cycle tends to have a longer tail compared to more replenishment ecommerce businesses, as people don’t replace glasses as frequently as other products.”
Dublin-based startup Ambr Eyewear, which launched in 2017, initially sold only blue light blocking and sleep glasses but eventually partnered with a local lab to provide prescription options.
Ambr quickly took off in Dublin’s tech community before spreading worldwide due to its trendy branding. Last year, it sold around 11,000 pairs of glasses. Transactions jumped 245% during lockdown and website traffic that results in a purchase has doubled, according to Ambr’s Google analytics data.
People previously browsed the site, but many wouldn’t actually buy and would instead opt for shopping at a local store. “Now they don’t have that choice,” said co-founder Dan Nugent.
Lean in to new tech
It also might be easier to illustrate the advantages of different technical add-ons on a website versus in person, said Wathieu, especially concepts that consumers aren’t totally familiar with, like blue light filtering or sleep glasses.
While at-home and virtual try-ons are standard for many DTC glasses companies, Warby Parker recently expanded its prescription check feature that allows consumers to renew their prescriptions by taking a vision test through their computer and smartphone.
Since the pandemic began, Warby Parker pushed the service out in three new states, expanding its availability to 28 states in total. Warby Parker declined to comment for this story.
“Brands like Warby and Zenni have found innovative ways to integrate technology,” said Melissa Jackson-Parsey, chief strategy officer at creative agency B-Reel, pointing to the augmented reality technology that both brands have used to facilitate virtual at-home fittings.
There’s more opportunity, though, said Jackson-Parsey, like incorporating technology to “help build digital destinations that delight in the same way visiting Warby’s first store did or using technology to support human-to-human interactions versus just a proliferation of bots.”