Article Date: 4/1/2009

Check Out FramesDirect.com

Check Out FramesDirect.com

Find out what this online eyewear provider is building in the virtual world.

By Desiree Ifft, Contributing Editor

DHAVID COOPER, OD, says he hardly knew the difference between a file and a folder back in 1994. Today, he's cofounder and CEO of a cutting-edge, online technology company he hopes someday will benefit the entire optometry profession.

Humble Beginnings

It was 1994 when Dr. Cooper and two business partners sold their five-office optometry practice in Houston. After spending a year writing the book "101 Secrets of a Million Dollar Office," conducting practice management seminars and traveling, he reunited with former partner Guy Hodgson, OD. They were ready to start a new venture. But what?

"We asked ourselves ‘where will the eyewear industry be in 10 to 12 years?’" Dr. Cooper said in a recent interview with new OD. "We had no idea. We'd seen it change so much already with the entrance of large retailers and third-party insurance plans. Historically, it's been a changing and evolving profession."

To avoid simply recreating the traditional ground-floor optometry practice, and to force themselves to think creatively, Drs. Cooper and Hodgson set up a refracting lane and optical dispensary on the third floor of a six-story building. On a lark, Dr. Cooper purchased Microsoft FrontPage software and learned to build a Web page. "That was intriguing, and it made us wonder whether that was the answer to our question," he said. From that point, they began building a Web-based business, which has become FramesDirect.com.

Inside the Enterprise

Through the FramesDirect Web site, customers can purchase frames, prescription eyeglasses and plano or prescription sunglasses. Replacement contact lenses are also available, although they're not the focus of the business. "We want to do the harder stuff: prescription eyewear and sunglasses," Dr. Cooper said.

"Doing the harder stuff" has meant investing several million dollars in building an advanced online infrastructure and implementing systems to provide customers with the same eyewear-buying experience they have in a brick-and-mortar dispensary. According to Dr. Cooper, "We want to guide consumers through their purchases, maintain a personal touch and have them be just as comfortable communicating with us online as if they were in our office."

FramesDirect employs approximately 55 people who work toward that goal. Customers can place online orders on their own anytime. Opticians staff the customer service department via a toll-free number, live Web chat or Skype weekdays and evenings to help site visitors if they need it. Each person who places an order through the site receives a personal phone call. Other employees handle Web design, online marketing, IT for site enhancements, database management, returns and exchanges, shipping and receiving and quality control. The in-house lab cuts and finishes 80% of the lens orders. The labs of the manufacturers complete some orders, such as high-wrap prescription sunglasses that are more complex and require greater customization.

Visitors to FramesDirect.com immediately are greeted by a virtual presentation by Dr. Cooper, courtesy of Internet walk-on technology. He explains the company's mission and what consumers can expect to find on the Web site. Inside the site, video guidepersons, such as Texas actress Nicole Taylor, are used to convey information. In the future, walk-on guides will help customers select frames and lenses.

Through Internet walk-on technology, CEO Dhavid Cooper, OD, personally greets each visitor to the FramesDirect homepage.

Visitors can browse more than 100,000 products, listen to podcasts or watch videos about frame and lens technology. They can post a question for Dr. Cooper in Ask the CEO, and access The Eye Zone blog's optical articles, discussion board and RSS feed. They also can link in with social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

What helps FramesDirect.com stand out among the dozen or more available optical sites is its patented FrameFinder Virtual Try-On feature. Visitors can upload a photo of their face to see what they'll look like wearing the site's frames.

The company is preparing to launch a new version of FrameFinder that will enable accurate face mapping. "Once a photo is uploaded, we'll know not only the shoppers' pupillary distance (PD) but also their face width and bridge size," Dr. Cooper explained. "Instead of looking through thousands of frames, we'll show them only those that fit their size requirements. We want to frame-style anyone, anywhere in the world."

Getting Noticed

Drs. Cooper and Hodgson, the company's CFO and COO, have received the Blue Chip Enterprise Award from the MassMutual Financial Group and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The award recognizes businesses that have overcome challenges, seized opportunities, creatively utilized resources and achieved success. In 2000, they were finalists for an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award (EOY). Winners of the EOY over the years have included Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Pierre Omidyar of eBay.

At FramesDirect.com, the company's patented FrameFinder Virtual Try-On feature assists customers shopping for eyewear. An updated version with face mapping is coming soon.

Although the company has done no external marketing other than search engine optimization and encouraging customers to share their experience with friends, the site gets 25,000 to 30,000 unique visitors a day. Dr. Cooper declined to cite order or revenue numbers, but said the company has grown 25% to 30% each year since the Web site went live in late 1996. He also said, "While all of these consumers visit our site every day, the majority are using us as a resource, perhaps researching online before going somewhere else to buy. But that's the beauty of the Web — the information is available 24/7."

Competition is Nothing New
You may be surprised to learn just how many options patients have to buy eyeglasses online. Even a quick Web search turns up a dozen or more possibilities, such as 39 Dollar Glasses, Eye-BuyDirect, Specs On the Net and Zenni Optical.
Says practice management consultant Donna A. Suter, "Of course frames are going to be sold on the Internet. E-commerce is a fact of life now." Because of this competition, the question is how will online optical stores affect the dispensary business inside the walls of optometric practices across the country? New OD asked Ms. Suter and John Warren, OD, for suggestions on how brickand-mortar dispensaries can adapt and remain competitive in an evolving marketplace.

Donna A. Suter, president of Suter Consulting Group, Apison, Tenn.:
■ Carry interesting merchandise (three "looks" for every face) and present it effectively. That includes dusting the frames every day and making sure lenses are smudge-free.
■ Take time to educate patients. Just because someone doesn't want to invest in a premium frame, don't assume the latest lens technology isn't important to them.
■ Make sure someone in your office can serve as a fashion consultant for patients. Speaking with your manufacturer reps is a good place to start.

John Warren, OD, group practice owner, Racine, Wis.:
■ Provide the best customer service to patients ordering eyeglasses in your practice, so they won't feel the need to go elsewhere.
■ Don't compete purely on price. You'll lose to mass merchandisers every time. Pick your battles and fight to win. But keep in mind you can't win every battle in the marketplace.
■ Close sales while patients are in your office or optical store, and take them out of the online buying cycle. For many patients, eyewear is still very much a "touch and feel" buying experience.
Despite the growing number of options for eyewear purchasing, the percentage of patients who buy at their optometrist's office seems to be remaining steady, according to the latest data in Caring for the Eyes of America, a report produced by the American Optometric Association (AOA). Richard C. Edlow, OD, chairman of the AOA Data & Information Committee, says when AOA members were asked what percentage of their patients take their eyeglass prescriptions elsewhere, the response was 14.3% in 2000, 13.6% in 2002, 15% in 2004 and 14.3% in 2006.
Dr. Edlow's advice: "Regardless of the players, technology will continue to impact how we do business in the eyecare industry. Be aware of what's going on and participate when you can."

Journey Through Uncharted Territory

Learning how to make this new business model a success has been an arduous and ongoing process. "When we first started, we knew we were in new territory and would be closely scrutinized. So we had to make sure our products and processes were perfect," Dr. Cooper said. "However, we also thought Internet commerce would be about price. To the contrary, we've found that while price can be a factor, making purchases online is more about convenience. As a result, we moved away from the low-price model we'd tried for about a year. We now keep the emphasis on convenience, precision and quality."

Toward that end, each product the company ships goes through a meticulous inspection process. All aspects of the order are verified, including prescription, PD accuracy, frame quality, size and color. Eyeglasses aren't shipped unless lens coatings are flawless, lenses are perfectly mounted and frames are properly aligned and adjusted.

Early on, there was uncertainty about whether prescription eyeglasses other than single-vision could be provided accurately via the Web. Measuring seg heights for progressive lenses, for example, was an obvious concern. But Dr. Hodgson developed a mathematical formula for determining optimal seg height that doesn't require the usual face-to-face measurement. Using the frame specifications and an accurate monocular PD measurement, either from the patient's prescription or derived from a photo, the formula determines where the seg height should be. It's been so successful that seg heights are no longer measured in their brick-and-mortar optical showroom.

Next Steps

Overall, the founders of FramesDirect believe they've learned much in the past 12 years about offering consumers the option of purchasing eyewear online. "We've taken a slow approach to understanding this model and proving it can be effective," Dr. Cooper said. "Now we feel we're perfectly poised to work with the whole industry. We'd like to find ways to allow optometrists to leverage what we've done and use this as an adjunct to all of the services they already provide in their practices."

How might that happen? "We don't have the answer yet, but we will," Dr. Cooper said. "At the moment," he continued, "business is doing well despite the current economic downturn. That's one more reason we feel strongly about bringing the profession on board with our vision of the future." nOD



Optometric Management, Issue: April 2009