Anyone who’s spent more than half a minute in an eyewear chain store has experienced the pounce-and-pummel strategy that defines those franchised sales forces from coast to coast. Say whatever you like, try whatever tactic you may. You are not leaving that store without 2 pairs of designer frames with non-glare, indestructible lenses – and a hologram of the Grand Tetons that activates with every fifth blink (not included in the two pair special).

Two pairs of glasses for $99 quickly becomes $682. Try, just try to defer an upsell or two, as in, “I don’t really need non-reflective lenses, because I just read with these. At night.” The answer will invariably be, “So you want glare? You want us to add glare to your lenses?” And so the circular arguments kick into gear, propelling you to the exit, where six bug-eyed salespeople wearing glasses that none of them clearly need will block your way, insisting that the same two pair of specs will set you back at least $3,000 tomorrow.

Do you cave on the non-reflective coatings you don’t need? Go for a less designer-y look, even though you end up looking like a sexting councilman with a combover? Or do you abandon all regard for tradition – and join the eyewear revolution that looks to bring those shopping mall eyewear quacks to their already calloused knees?

The jig is up

More than a few eyewear companies, among them budget purveyor Warby Parker, have taken the gamble – heresy of heresies – to offer the consumer more of what they want for less. Instead of 2 pairs for one misleading Army-issue price, companies known as “eyewear upstarts” are placing realistic – yet far from ridiculous – prices on a complete set of glasses. So that you’ll buy more than one without being forced to. Because you can. Because you want to. Not because you’d better or you’re hosed.

Welcome to yet another example of the customer-centric business model getting several legs up on the old product-driven one. For those who still haven’t caught on, or who perhaps keep a loving portrait over the mantle in homage of eyewear chain founders, let’s go over this one more time: The consumer, armed with instant information via smartphone and tablet, has more power these days. If you think they’re going to sit still for hard-sell pitches because they really don’t want to have to take another 3 hours out of their lives to get glasses, think again.

Quit fighting the rising tide of consumer choice. Give people what they want at an affordable price, and you’ll likely make more than pushing limited options at outrageous markups.

Ease, please and thank you

So, is the trend to offer less expensive eyewear, even from designer names, working? A Crain’s New York Business article would suggest a resounding Yes:

  • It’s becoming common knowledge that eyewear never was very costly to make, says one fashion director quoted in the article. Plus, “Now these new companies have made it so easy to shop.”
  • Cashing in on the customer choice movement, Evan Weisfeld, co-founder of Tortoise & Blonde, explains that his company had the bright idea to offer consumers different sets of frames for different occasions: “Why would you wear the same pair of glasses on a date as you would to a board meeting?”
  • And Warby Parker? They’ve snagged $55 million in venture capital from the likes of J.Crew’s Mickey Drexler, among others. They’re also rumored to be in talks to design Google glasses. And the purveyor of $95 glasses, prescription lenses included, doesn’t stop there: The company provides a pair of glasses to charity for every pair it sells. “We’re already seeing the majority of customers who made first-time purchases in-store making second purchases online,” says co-CEO Neil Blumenthal, who adds that the eyewear industry has been “ripping people off for decades.”

Automated convenience

Beyond online sales, the eyewear biz has taken advantage of selling through vending machines. Though that’s just for sunglasses right now, at least until someone figures out how to fit the eye doctor into a machine…happily and profitably. And hopefully not resembling the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.

The vending option is one way for newer brands to break into the game – while filling growing demand. A club called Monocle Order, which opened up online two years ago, decided to sell some of its dozen or so sunglass brands, including one of its own, via a vending machine at a Las Vegas hotel. Enough people bought the approach that Monocle Order installed a vending machine at a rooftop Brooklyn club in May, and also threw open the doors on its inaugural showroom. The cost for vending machine shades from Monacle? About $50. Which may or may not seem a little steep, depending on the hour of day you choose to purchase.

“We do see sales happening at 4 in the morning, for the late-night partiers seeing the sun come up,” said Monacle co-founder Alex van Klaveren. All that’s needed to gain membership to the club is to purchase one pair of specs. Mr. van Klaveren reports that his venture boasts roughly 20,000 members — with each averaging three sunglass purchases per year.

The vending trend looks to be catching on, with Sunglass Hut (owned by Milan fashion giant Luxottica) opening up a 24-hour digital machine at its store in New York’s Times Square. Sales projections there are predicted at more than $10 million annually. And Jins, a big name in the eyewear industry in Japan, opened a few machines, with plans for 50 more, including one at Kansai Airport in the middle of Osaka Bay.

And all of this with nary a word about non-reflective lenses, frames that will survive a Stinger missile strike but not a slight twist at the wrong angle or markups that would embarrass Neiman Marcus.

Quite the revolution indeed.

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