Retail Tech

The speccie startups taking on the giants in the glasses business

Cheaper and cleverer machines have inspired a new generation of ambitious founders to make and sell their own glasses.

18 Jan 2017

In a warehouse in Hackney Wick, Brian McGinn shapes a pair of spectacles from a sheet of Italian acetate using tools he says anyone could buy from B&Q. The self-taught maker has come to understand the inner workings of the eyewear industry over the last few years, creating spectacle collections for esteemed British brands Kirk Originals and Oliver Goldsmith.

In late summer 2016, he moved into new digs in Hackney Wick. From here, he plans to do something that just a few years ago he didn’t think would even be possible: design, manufacture and sell glasses under his own name. The complete end-to-end business of eyewear.

He’s not alone. A crop of independent glasses makers have been popping up in recent years and more, like McGinn, are on their way.

2.8 multiple markup

Several forces lie behind the emergence of indie makers in this sector.

Firstly, power in the global eyewear industry is concentrated between a very small number of enormous players, making it ripe territory for infiltration by smaller, more nimble insurgents in an age where manufacturing and marketing have become a lot more accessible.

Secondly, it’s an industry that appears inefficient and opaque, with an inordinate number of parties peeling off their slice on a pair of glasses that typically sets back the consumer around £300. Frame designers, manufacturers, lens makers, brand licensers, distributors and retailers all take a cut. On average, a retailer charges 2.8 times the price it pays the wholesaler.

Tech revolution

The ubiquity of glasses makes it an attractive sector for anyone looking in; 75% of the UK population need them and spending on correcting sight is expected to exceed the £3bn mark by 2020.

But the driving force behind a lot of the excitement underpinning the eyewear upstarts is, however, nothing to do with economics or inefficiency of complacent incumbents, but technology. Specifically, breakthrough equipment that can be used for manufacturing spectacles.

McGinn, a passionate and skilled craftsman of spectacle frames, recognises that by hand-making frames with simple tools he’s limited to producing small batches and prototypes, so is now exploring more mechanised software-based machinery.


How Warby Parker convinced everyone it was a tech company

The eyewear industry has already had one big disruptive startup: Glasses Direct. The company caused anarchy in the UK eyewear industry by cutting out many of the layers, margins and mark-ups that have made spectacles so expensive.

Founded by James Murray Wells in his parents’ barn in Wiltshire in 2004, while he was still at university, the company attracted investors, created and bought other brands, and in August this year, was sold to the French optical group Essilor for £120m.

An even more remarkable valuation has been generated by New York startup Warby Parker, which has overtly pursued a tech narrative, generating a remarkable £176m in investment since it was set up in 2010. Initiatives such as free home trialling and savvy e-commerce were all it took to ratchet up investor hype and coverage in the tech press.

The company demonstrated a clear contrast with what was currently available. Through managing its own distribution, it showed that it could sell well-designed and desirable frames at a cheaper price than the rest of the industry.

CNC factory

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, which follow a design made on a computer, are unlocking possibilities for small designers. In recent years, CNC machines have become smaller, cheaper and more accurate, and can now function on a normal household power supply. Allied to CNC machines is the emergence of ultra-high-pressure water jet cutters capable of slicing through tough materials with an unprecedented level of accuracy.

Then there’s 3D printing, which doesn’t involve any cutting, instead creating complex, detailed shapes from digital renderings.

The prices of these machines are dropping precipitously, almost by the month, while the quality appears to be going the other way just as fast. CNC machines are now bought for a few thousand pounds, while a decent quality 3D printer costs £1,000; a fraction of the price just a couple of years ago.

There are similar price-quality dynamics at play on clever new 3D cameras capable of accurately appraising the dimensions of a person’s head and selecting a frame that best suits their face. It’s now possible to buy a cheap one for £100, which could bring an end to the guesswork and confusion typical when confronted by a wall of different spectacle frames, and potentially transform buying glasses online.


Shifting value

One of the most eager founders using the new tech is Tom Broughton. He founded Cubitts in 2013 and was fitting out his shop-meets-head office on Caledonian Road, by King’s Cross, as Courier went to press.

‘It’s the first time a whole bunch of off-the-peg, open-sourced hardware has been available in this industry. It’s now a question of how you use it,’ says Broughton.

But if everything becomes mechanised, will the spectacles industry be driven purely by price as the value in manufacturing and design is removed and a race to the bottom ensues?

‘Our role and value just shifts,’ says Broughton. ‘There’s a lot of skill in the sourcing of materials, designing, glazing and branding outside of what the technology is doing.’

Optical revival

These new entrants want to sell eyewear in the same way that clothing, shoes and bags can be. That means stylish physical and digital shops; contemporary brands that convey something appealing to consumers; and, of course, well-designed and well-made products. It’s all a long way from clinical optician chains and concessions in department stores.

Broughton, a keen student of the history of British eyewear, believes that by tapping into the lost artisanship and heritage of British eyewear, there’s real opportunity to reinvigorate the UK optical market.

‘What’s really exciting here is that all this tech can revive an industry without over-playing the nostalgia card,’ he adds.

Searching for skills

Lawrence Jenkin, a veteran of the UK eyewear industry who ran his family business Anglo American Optical until 1996, is impressed by how the likes of Broughton are going about developing their companies.

Despite his belief that a revival could well be in motion, he identifies a missing component in bringing it about: skilled workers. The collapse of the British eyewear industry over the last few decades has led to the disappearance of domestic skills and experience as people have either moved on, died or simply not been able to train a new generation, Jenkin argues. But he sees some reason for optimism: ‘There’s an interest coming through from young designers who are coming from jewellery or fashion and want to use their skills making spectacle frames from wood, cellulose acetate or buffalo horn. That’s very exciting.’

Broughton has seen that too. For ‘a bit of fun’ he began teaching courses on designing frames. Surprised by the positive response, he has created more courses to take place in his shops over the coming months.

Jenkin now spends most of his time training people on designing, shaping and making frames, and fitting lenses: ‘I’ve not seen this kind of enthusiasm for years. Hopefully the technology is going to make it possible for more people.’


Luxottica’s dominance in eyewear

One company dominates glasses like no other. Northern Italy’s Luxottica owns brands, enormous manufacturing facilities, retail chains and even controls distribution.

Its portfolio reads like a roster of the best-known glasses brands. The company has full ownership of Ray Ban, Persol, Oakley and Oliver Peoples, and operates several others though licensing deals with the likes of Miu Miu, Chanel and Armani. It also owns retail chains around the world including Sunglasses Hut and Lens Crafters.

For an obscure company that few are aware of, the numbers are staggering. It’s the largest eyewear company in the world, with a market capitalisation of £21.4bn, sales totalling £5.4bn in 2015 and over 78,000 employees.

China takeover

A lot of the world’s glasses production shifted to China over a 20-year period as Luxottica and its smaller Italian rival, Safilo, pursued ambitious growth strategies and China’s manufacturing resources opened up, gradually damaging European manufacturing.

It’s led to a fascinating relationship with China: 45% of Luxottica’s frames are now manufactured in Asia, but in recent years it’s become increasingly expensive to run manufacturing from China as a result of the higher wages demanded, as the population becomes increasingly affluent.

On the plus side, this affluence has meant more of the country’s population are buying its glasses.