By Delia Paunescu: Assistant Editor

With expertly designed websites, young urbanite models and cheap chic frames, a fresh crop of optical e-tailers is bringing new competition to the market

(L to R) Lookmatic’s Jesse, Tortoise & Blonde’s Jermyn, Mezzmer’s Red Sky and Sneaking Duck’s Cuttelfish frames.

The internet isn’t new. Buying glasses on the internet isn’t new either. But a new wave of online-only optical retailers is switching up the way e-tailing looks where eyewear is concerned and striking a chord, particularly with younger consumers.

Companies like Tortoise and Blonde, Bonlook, Mezzmer, Classic Specs, Lookmatic, Sneaking Duck, Eyefly and Warby Parker are playing up the “fast fashion” model and bringing a hipster-cool aesthetic to the world of online optical.

In apparel, stores like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 became global retail chains by remaking runway-inspired looks with their own private labels and selling them to consumers at significantly more approachable price points. In the same vein, eyewear’s “seenster” optical e-tailers (our own moniker) offer Buddy Holly-style eyeglasses at around $100 retail and is connecting with the twenty- and thirty- something consumers for their fashion-forward styles (oversize “vintage-inspired” acetates) which are most-often private label, social media saturation (all sites are present and active on Facebook, Twitter, and more) and philanthropic endeavors (most have adopted the social purpose model and donate a portion of their sales proceeds to a charity of choice).

Reaching the ideal marketer’s demographic (those ages 18-35), these optical e-tailers have also turned their backs on the traditional language of dispensing. Among the sites’ copy and messages to visitors, glasses are not portrayed as a medical purchase, but a fashion accessory—and the sites’ relatively lower package prices suggest the purchase of multiple pairs. Customers are still encouraged to see an OD for their prescription but, counter to the industry’s traditional professional standards, these sites suggest consumers get their PD measurements at their doctor’s office (most say they will reimburse any OD fees) or offer instruction in how to “self measure” for a PD. Although a few of these companies offer progressive lenses, the focus here is on the single-vision crowd.

The scenester set has its sights fixed on younger, contemporary customers. They feature streamlined designs and modern typefaces to complement minimalist frame offerings. Unlike larger eyewear sites such as Zenni Optical or EyeBuyDirect, this class usually features no more than 30 different privately manufactured, label-free frames to choose from. In their advertising and promo images, eyewear models all seemingly in their 20s pose against urban backgrounds or clean white screens.

Perhaps this latest trend in retailing is a sign of Generation Y’s overwhelming influence. It was, after all, the millennial population’s preoccupation with all things retro that brought the Clubmaster and Wayfarer styles back into the mainstream. Or perhaps it’s all just brilliant marketing. Either way, a common thread can be woven through these new sites.

The Mezzmer home page.
Mezzmer, which launched in November 2011, “believes in providing the latest and greatest in eyewear fashions,” and is “always on the lookout for what looks good.” According to Michael Lee, who founded the company with his brother Roger, Mezzmer currently sells 24 vintage-inspired frames, for $99 each, but will be updating their frame catalog year-round to cater to their ideal 18- to 45-year-old customer. “Our ideal customer is comfortable with purchasing online and is budget conscious,” Lee added.

Style shots from Mezzmer’s first collection.
Mezzmer founders Roger Lee (l) and Michael Lee (r).
So far, Mezzmer’s self-described professional, young, fresh and friendly website has seen a positive response. Presently only selling to continental U.S., Hawaii and Canada, Lee said, “We believe that the process from choosing frames to ordering prescriptions can be easily accomplished online with some of the convenience that technology provides.” He credits Mezzmer’s complimentary home trials with allowing customers the confidence to order via the internet.

For their charitable contribution, the company allows customers to choose one of five charities, to which Mezzmer will donate 3 percent of the purchase price. These include: Helen Keller International, The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Animal Welfare Institute, Actions Against Hunger/ACF International and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Though Mezzmer doesn’t currently offer sun lenses, the company said it will continue to keep up with designers and industry trends going forward. “Our growth plans are to continue to expand our brand awareness to the general market while continuing to improve our customer’s shopping experience,” Lee added.

The Tortoise and Blonde home page.
Tortoise and Blonde’s roots are planted in the eyewear industry. Co-founder Steven Weisfeld, OD, has 30 years of experience in optical, including wholesale, retail and distribution and he currently owns an eyecare practice in New Jersey. His son Evan Weisfeld, spent five years in finance before joining the family business as co-founder of their new website. Targeting the younger “indie rock” demographic (the company’s logo is set within a guitar pick), Tortoise and Blonde launched in April 2011 and was present at last year’s South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. “We’re less preppy than the competition. We’re a little edgier, a little grittier, a little more indie rock,” said Evan.

He added, “One way we differentiate is that this is a family business. It’s what we know and what we do best so why not move it into the 21st century? It’s no secret that the margins in traditional optical are inflated. This website is a great way to bring a quality product to customers by breaking down the barriers of entry and giving someone the best user experience possible.”

Tortoise and Blonde founders Evan Weisfeld (l) and Steven Weisfeld (r).
The site, which considers itself a full-service optical website, has a distribution center in New Jersey and fewer than 10 employees at year-end including an OD and optician. It is looking to hire more staff in the new year. Frames are created in collaboration between the Weisfelds and a designer they have on retainer (an agent works with factories in China and Italy) and start at $97. Tortoise and Blonde also does all their own lab work to assure quality control. “Even when we outgrow our current office space, I don’t see us outsourcing anything to China, besides the initial manufacturing of our frames. The closer we are to the process, the fewer errors are made,” Steven said.

For the future, the Weisfelds want to develop collaborations with larger fashion brands, host more events in the indie music world, to introduce new lines and colors to their frame collection and continue their presence in “all digital channels.” The company will also continue contributing to the Eye Care 4 Kids charity, for which they donated $225,000 in 2011. “We’re reaching out to anyone who feels comfortable enough with themselves to not need an outward label,” Evan said.

The Lookmatic home page.

Lookmatic’s first pop up, held December 2011 at L.A.’s TenOverSix boutique.
Originally launched as Spexclub in New York City in November 2010, Joe Cole, executive director, said of the site, “This is about the customer and providing them with a terrific product with genuine style, great quality and actual value. This means revolutionizing the eyewear industry once again by utilizing the online marketplace and creating a brand that effectively communicates with our audience. The response has been amazing. Since coming on board and rebranding as Lookmatic [in November 2011], our messaging and product has really resonated with our audience.”

Founder Jeff Cole, chairman, CEO and Joe’s father, was previously chairman of Cole National Corp., which included Pearle Vision, Sears Vision and Target Optical, while Bob Hillman managed Pearle Vision’s U.S. expansion to 200 stores, establishing the one-hour optical model and the eyewear superstore. Joe Cole said his own background spans advertising, branding, filmmaking, screenwriting, fashion and product design. “That experience and a family legacy in the optical industry has put me in a position to execute this business model,” he added.

Currently, Lookmatic only ships domestically. Joe Cole said, “It’s no secret that more and more, all retail continues to move online. It is only logical that we look to the web as a resource for improving the experience and value for our customer when it comes to purchasing eyewear. The web allows us to create a unique and enjoyable experience where customers can shop great product without the pressure of being in a brick-and-mortar. It’s a fast paced world out there so we bring the product into your homes and offices, and make it simple.

Lookmatic executive director Joe Cole.
“The tone is about the individual embracing eyewear as more than a functional necessity. We want [our customer] to feel great about how they look and we think you can do that with access to stylish eyewear at approachable pricing, all without sacrificing on experience and service. Inspiration comes from art, film, fashion, even our audience provides sources of inspiration for our designs.” Cole said that Lookmatic’s frames are developed and sourced with some of the same factories “that are producing for high-end designers at much higher price points.”

All of the company’s frames are available in plano lenses, sun, a prescription or prescription sun. Lookmatic is also the only of these companies offering photochromic lenses. “For multifocal customers, we have a progressive lens product for $128. It’s a pretty amazing value with a frame that is high on style without sacrificing quality. I’m not sure who else, if anyone, even offers a product like this at this price,” Cole said. Lenses are produced at the company’s own vertically integrated lab and the Lookmatic team works closely with customers to make sure prescriptions and PD measurements are correct.

The Sneaking Duck home page. 
Australia-based Sneaking Duck was not yet three months old at presstime but co-founder and CEO Mark Capps told VM he was “delighted” with the company’s results so far. While 95 percent of revenue came from their home country to date, Capps added 5 percent was coming in from around the world (mostly U.S.).

“There are four of us who set up the business and we all love having multiple pairs of glasses to match them to our outfit or mood. None of us see glasses as medical transaction,” Capps said. Co-founder Mike Knapp, technical director, Michael Fox, operations director, and Jodie Fox, fashion director, had all previously worked on Shoes of Prey, their first online retail venture, while Capps was at Google for five years. “I realized the enormous potential to do really interesting, fun and successful business in online and together we saw the opportunity to change the way people buy glasses and to cut out unnecessary costs.”

A style shot from Sneaking Duck’s first collection.
Presently, Sneaking Duck offers 53 frames for $180 Australian (or $184 U.S.) with free shipping in Australia and multi-coat lenses that protect against scratches, UV and reflections. “We use a variety of material indexes to ensure the best possible outcome—CR39 1.5 plastic, 1.56 poly carbonate and 1.67 high index lenses,” Capps said, adding that the company works closely with a lab in Sydney. Sneaking Duck doesn’t currently offer multifocal lenses but will “as soon as we are confident of providing a top quality outcome online.” If customers want to purchase a second or third pair, the price goes down to $90 Australian. “We source our frames from a variety of suppliers in Asia and will be adding to our range regularly throughout 2012 with discrete mini-collections coming online,” he added.

(L to R) Sneaking Duck founders Mike Knapp, Mark Capps, Jodie Fox and Michael Fox.
“We believe that buying eyewear is fun. It is a fashion purchase, not a medical appointment. Our tone and feel is all aimed at helping customers find frames to match their outfits and their moods. Getting the prescription right is obviously important, but secondary to getting the look right. Our customers are 15- to 45-year-old people who want to accessorize their look with glasses. They’re happy to spend a few dollars on getting their outfit right, but they’re also keen to avoid spending $600+ on one pair of frames,” Capps said.

Going forward, the company is looking to expand their range of styles, work with more forms of marketing—it presently relies on editorial both online and off, word-of-mouth referrals, social media and online SEO and SEM—and “internationalize where possible. We’ve only just begun,” Capps added.