RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif.—VSP Global enters brick-and-mortar retailing today with the opening of the company’s first two Eyeconic stores in the country, located in the Chicago market. The Bucktown location has had a soft opening since mid-June and will have a grand opening on June 29, while the second will be in Fulton Market opening on July 13 , the company said. In an interview with VMAIL, Bill Vaughan, president of VSP Retail, described some of the thinking and planning that went into creating the digital and merchandising features of the new locations, noting that the stores “will serve as an extension of VSP’s e-commerce Eyeconic site, connecting products, services and a VSP network doctor to retail minded consumers who are looking for experiences that bridge the divide between digital and physical.”

VSP originally announced its intentions to expand Eyeconic via brick-and-mortar stores back in March, as VMAIL reported. Vaughan said, “We are thrilled to bring the very first Eyeconic stores to Chicago and offer customers a differentiated eyecare and eyewear experience. Transparent prices and seamless digital and physical retail access are the cornerstones of our brand. And in partnership with a doctor of optometry, we now offer comprehensive eye exams using state-of-the-art technology to ensure eye health and wellness remains the focal point of our customer journey.”

Bill Vaughan.

Eyeconic stores will each feature what Vaughan describes as a curated selection of about 500 men’s, women’s and kids’ frames from over 30 brands that span fashion, lifestyle and performance categories. These selections are drawn from the brands that are offered to consumers on Eyeconic including Calvin Klein, Nike, Salvatore Ferragamo, DKNY, Cole Haan and others. Bundled frame and lens packages offer simple pricing, which are detailed here and sales associates do not work on commission. Eyeconic sells Ethos branded progressive lenses. They soon plan to offer Unity lenses, too, a spokesperson told VMail. The stores will also offer all major brands of contact lenses.

Elements of the Eyeconic stores’ visual concept and layouts were designed and managed in-house and with input from VSP Global’s Innovation lab. The company said it also partnered with Perkins + Will, a Chicago firm, for the actual store designs and build-out.

“Tablets will be used in store for demonstration and the customer at their own discretion can use their own phones as well. Self-navigation is part of it, but associates are trained to ask lifestyle questions. There will be a simple flow, there is no POS system and no cash register. We’ll be organizing payment through Eyeconic,” Vaughan said.

He added, “We wanted to demystify the presentation. From our research, more consumers want some degree of personalization and curation. For example, in terms of the ways frames are presented, they’re not presented by men’s and women’s styles. We’re assorting by brand. “

The doctor employment model is a sublease agreement, Vaughan noted. All professional fees are retained by the practice, not Eyeconic.

Patients can schedule eye exams online and browse eyewear before coming in to see a VSP network doctor. Endless aisle integration with virtual try-on at eyeconic.com will expand total frame options to over 60 brands and 2,300 styles, the company noted. Store associates will use tablets to enable patients to view these additional styles.

Also being tested within the Eyeconic stores is a "Fit Concierge," a prototype developed by the VSP innovation lab. A depth-scanner camera creates a digital avatar of a person’s face; the person then answers a series of style preference questions on the touch screen (optical or sunglasses, colors, shapes, etc.) An algorithm then processes those inputs, along with facial measurements, and delivers in-store frame recommendations. The patient picks up to five favorites and a store associate will hand-deliver your selections so the customer can try them on.

As VSP previously stated, VSP chose to launch the Eyeconic stores in Chicago based on higher out-of-network claims the company was seeing at optical chains and mass retailers in the city. VSP Vision Care is the nation’s largest not-for-profit vision benefits company and covers one in four people in the U.S.

“A strategic, wholly owned retail footprint helps meet client expectations and contributes to a healthy and competitive network,” said Michael Guyette, president and CEO of VSP Global. “By reducing out-of-network leakage, we also ensure members in Chicago are getting the most value out of their benefits—particularly those who fall into the 20 percent of consumers who prefer mass retail and online-based eyewear stores over private practice. This also opens new employment opportunities for VSP network doctors who desire to practice full-scope optometry in a retail setting.”

Added Vaughan, “As we conducted research, we identified a unique, uncommitted consumer who is looking for simplified shopping, transparency and convenience when it comes to their eyecare and eyewear-buying experience,” said Vaughan. “We are building the Eyeconic brand to meet the needs of discerning customers. That includes many residents in Chicago’s dense urban market of about 2.7 million people, where over 400,000 VSP members live and work today.”

Vaughan would not elaborate on additional expansion plans for Eyeconic stores in the Chicago market or identify additional cities or a goal number for other stores. “We will be monitoring and evaluating these first locations.”

Eyeconic stores are considered in network for most VSP, Cigna and MetLife members. Eyeconic also accepts private pay and most other vision insurance plans as an out-of-network option. The first store, located at 1647 North Damen Ave., opened to the public on June 15 and will host its official grand opening celebration on June 29. The second store, located at 916 W. Randolph St., will open to the public on July 13 and host a grand opening celebration on July 27.

From a marketing standpoint, Eyeconic will be targeting area VSP members who have previously gone out-of-network to retail for their exam and materials claims, Vaughan noted. He added that Eyeconic will also be the official eyewear sponsor for Lollapalooza in Chicago, set for early August. The goal is to target perspective customers and create activations on site of the festival in a collaboration with Live Nation, where people can look at augmented reality apps on their smartphones branded around Eyeconic.