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business models, strategies and technologies

Eyewear epiphany – separating frames from lenses

US company Lensabl is rethinking the business model for eyewear – separating frames and lenses, and opting for tech over design

Eyewear frames aren’t much use without lenses to look through (unless it’s a fashion shoot, of course). Lenses aren’t much use without a frame to position them in front of your eyes.

So it’s hardly surprising that frames and lenses have had interwoven fates throughout their business history. You buy them the same place, but you’ve no idea where the real money is made, or how two completely different supply chains and sets of business priorities dovetail under the optician’s (optometrist in the US) shingle.

Prescription lenses for any frame

US company Lensabl has separated the two, and turned providing lenses into a completely separate, independent service. Lensabl makes lenses for any pair of glasses you already own, via a direct-to-consumer mail service.You give them your details, then send them your prescription glasses in the prepaid box they send you. They swap out your old prescription lenses with any kind of new lenses you want, guaranteeing that they’ll fit the frame. And send your newly shod frames back to you.

The company is completely brand-agnostic and focuses solely on the lenses. They’re able to offer everything from single-vision and progressive lenses to transition lenses and prescription sunglass lenses, with glass or polycarbonate choices, a full range of thicknesses, and with all coatings included. Lensabl asserts it has yet to encounter a frame they couldn’t cut a lens for.

Tech not design

The market space Lensabl occupies is very specific, and a key part of the innovation is that it is technology-driven, rather than being centred around eyewear design. This makes very good sense when only a handful of providers totally dominate the offline eyewear industry (unbeknown to most people, almost all the hundreds of smart brand names for eyewear frames are only marketing smoke for a duopoly stranglehold that keeps prices stratospheric).

Every Lensabl lens is custom made, fitted and tested in the company’s own facility in Los Angeles, California. This means they are able to control quality. Crucially, their technology-driven business model also helps insulate the setup from the huge costs and commercial precariousness of being subject to style and fashion whims. No one needs any specific design iteration or fashion quirk – but everybody needs lenses in their glasses.

We replace old lenses with new ones, clear lenses with sunnys—and middle men with extra cash in your pocket.

Saving time and money

Lensabl is refreshingly direct about the “new business model” aspect of the company’s offering. Time is a major factor. With modern lifestyle patterns and urban infrastructure, making an appointment with an optician for an eye test (to meet a vague, as-yet-undocumented need based solely on accepting ageing and admitting one’s own physical decay!) is easily put off, because it costs time and money (parking, transport and incidentals).

And because eye tests, frame browsing and frame fittings are murkily blended in the current business model for opticians, it’s not just one visit – it’s usually several. Taking into account that a visit to such an optician’s emporium is often a fraught, less-than-encouraging experience (which I’ve written about elsewhere, including here), it’s hardly surprising that Lensabl has established a direct-to-consumer model that creates new market opportunities while offering a premium product.

Almost incidentally, the Lensabl business model helps you extend the return on investment for your probably extortionately expensive eyewear frames – if you like your frame, you can keep on wearing it, or repurpose it for sunnies or to make some other personal appearance statement.

Changes in manufacturing, materials and logistics setups worldwide mean the price of (most) frames and lenses is trending downwards. Increasing lifestyle emphasis on individualisation means people are tending to buy (or lease or subscribe to) multiple pairs of better-quality glasses, shoes and other items we consider important. The Lensabl business model helps facilitate this whole drift, so it definitely makes sense.

Holes in the chain

At the moment there seem to be a few holes in the chain, though I’m sure the savvy guys behind Lensabl are perfectly clear on that. To do their job, the Lensabl labs need the specific information about your prescription needs, whether that be from your current optician (who has absolutely no interest in surrendering that information) or from carrying out an eye test (a service that in most countries is securely in the hands of the opticians).

To deal with this key data deficiency, Lensabl reportedly plans on rolling out an end-to-end optometry solution service, featuring an online eye examination/test. The technology is apparently already in place, but there are – and will be – a lot of legal and regulatory hoops to jump through, especially if the company wants to go international.

For such a high-cost purchase, and one that pretty much everybody seems to dread, delay and diss, the Lensabl rethink of at least one part of the eyewear business landscape seems like a great idea.