Get Lenses sells contact lenses online, undercutting offline opticians by 20% or more, and the company now has annual sales of more than £6m.
I've been talking to CEO Michael Kraftman about the challenges of growing the online contact lenses market, and how the site achieves retention rates of more than 75%...
When was GetLenses founded?
The original company was founded in 2000, and it was one of the first internet sellers of contact lenses.
Using VC money, we acquired the business at the end of 2009, along with Post Optics, and we merged the two together, using Post Optics’ distribution centre in York.
We are the principal player in the online contact lenses market, and want to remain the number one in the UK and help grow the whole market.
How big is the market for contact lenses online?
There are around 3.5m contact lense wearers in the UK, but only around 7% buy online.
This is very low compared with other countries. In the US, for example, the figure is around 15%.
We have a big slice of this online market, with sales of around £6m a year and 100,000 active customers, but there is plenty of room for growth, and that is our challenge.
What are the barriers to market growth?
People are used to buying from opticians offline, and this is a habit that can be difficult to change.
It’s a step change to get people to switch online, but we have been successful and have customers who have been buying online for the past ten years.
The close link between the optician who is a medical professional and the point of sale of the lenses is another barrier, and this is where the UK differs from other countries.
In the US, the optician’s chains do not employ the opticians as they are in the UK, so the supply of lenses is separate from the professional who provides the prescription.
When you think about the way it works in the UK, it is odd. One analogy I use is that of a GP selling you the drugs he has just prescribed.
Do you undercut the offline opticians and chains, as is the case with sites like Glasses Direct?
Yes, we can offer a 20% to 40% saving on high street prices. Also, people typically spend more on lenses per year than glasses.
Glasses wearers tend to replace frames every couple of years, while people can spend £600 to £700 a year on lenses.
When I interviewed Jamie Murray Wells from Glasses Direct, he mentioned problems with suppliers being pressured by offline opticians – have you had any such problems?
We have a love/hate relationship with our suppliers.
Though the proportion buying lenses online is lower than other countries, I think the suppliers do recognise that the internet is an important channel, bit they do have to please their traditional clients.
They realise that the internet will be important in future, but there has always been that tension.
How do regulations affect the sale of contact lenses online?
Contact lenses prescriptions are written yearly, which is something that favours high street opticians.
People’s sight doesn’t necessarily change that often, so it’s not necessary, and this law doesn’t apply in the rest of Europe.
We can take orders from customers when this prescription is out of date, but we have to have a workaround in place, and can sell these from getlenses.nl, as it is Dutch law, which covers this site.
How do you overcome customer concerns about buying lenses online?
We try to make the website as easy to use as possible. The biggest barrier is getting people to be 100% confident that they have found the lenses they need.
We deal with this by providing photos of the box so they can compare it to their own, and we have clear contact details, as well as an easy returns policy.
I see you have a very prominent contact number on the site - do many people call for reassurance?
Yes, we have an excellent customer service team in place with detailed knowledge of the lenses we sell. A significant minority will call for reassurance about their order, but once the first purchase has been made, they’re generally OK after that.
What are your retention rates like?
Around 75% to 80% of our sales come from repeat customers.
We are very focused on retention, and try to make it as easy as possible for repeat orders.
Once they have placed one order, they can come back, see the details of their last purchase, and repeat it with a single click. Users don’t even have to touch the keyboard.
At the moment, we save customers’ payment details, but we are planning a subscription service so that customers can set up regular deliveries.
How do you market the site and reach the customers who currently aren’t buying lenses online?
We do all the standards stuff, SEO, PPC, affiliate marketing, but all of this tends to target people that are already buying, or have made the decision to buy lenses online.
To target new customers, I’ve found emails campaigns to be most effective, but this is not a brilliant market for mass advertising. Since we’re only targeting 3.5m lenses wearers, this means a lot of wastage for broadcasted ads.
Are you using social media?
We have a Facebook page and a Twitter account which have been going for a month or two. We’ve also added Facebook Connect to the site, and this has already proven to be popular.
How many people are in the Get Lenses team?
We have 30 people in total. 12 are based in London, split between development and marketing, and the rest are in York.
Roughly half of the York based staff are in the distribution centre while the rest work on customer services.
What kind of growth rates have you experienced?
The business has been growing at around 20% per year, but it is capable of growing much faster if we can grow the online lenses market as a whole.
We are also looking at other optical products as well, and this is something we’ll introduce at some point.