A Visionary in the Eyewear Industry

An interview with Mark Agnew



The year is 1999 and the internet has been exploding. Still, shopping online is relatively new. Yes, QVC is already more than a decade old, but it’s one thing to buy clothes and household materials by only seeing them on TV. But eyeglasses?


Mark Agnew admits he got deeply involved in understanding the vision industry from a mugging in his 20s. “I lost the vision in my right eye [so] I feel like I’ve been in the vision business for quite a while.”


Still, it wasn’t eyewear originally that was his….well, focus. He was one of the Wall St. gurus, at Lehman’s. But his writing and research helped him see certain biz openings. Bottom line: he started providing the option for folks to buy their eyewear online—Eyeglasses.com.


The aliens have landed

“The main challenge you have with ALL people—young or old—is that people have been trained to buy glasses one way. Which is, you go the eye doctor, he does the exam, and then he walks you out to the dispensary and sells you $500 glasses. That’s how people are trained—and that training is very difficult to get beyond,” says Agnew.


“People say, ‘What? You can buy glasses online?!’ There’s a lot of head scratching,” says Agnew. He adds, laughing, “It’s not because they can’t do it…it’s just like it’s an alien concept. It’s like, ‘What?! Aliens have landed in my town? What does that mean? What do I do?!’”


It’s not just for youngsters

When I started reporting on seniors and the ‘net early in the 21st century, maybe a fraction of one percent of them used it. Not anymore.


“It is a misconception that older people have difficulty using the Internet,” says Agnew. “I would never in my experience say, ‘Older people have difficulty buying glasses [online].’ We sell glasses to older people every day, all day long. Many of our clients are older people…80s, 90s. So I wouldn’t want to make any generalization about older people and their ability to buy online.”


Getting a personalized product

“Buying glasses is harder than most other things online—for a couple of reasons,” Agnew admits.


“First, there’s more to it. It’s not an off-the-shelf product. It’s a customized product. And there’s more information you have to put in,” he says, adding, “It’s not like Amazon, where three clicks and you’re done. It is more complicated.”


“You not only have to pick the frame, you have to put in your prescription. So you either have to transfer the prescription—which to many people looks like Greek—from what the doctor writes into the online prescription, or you scan your prescription and upload it. Or you send it to us, and we’ll upload it for you. We’ll take it any way. You want to mail it in, phone it in, fax it in, Pony Express it in,” Agnew says.


How the eye doctor sees things

There’s a second issue that consumers face: the feedback from their eye doctors. Agnew explains: “There’s this massive counter-advertising plan that’s going on all the time, and it goes like this: You go into your store and you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to buy from Eyeglasses.com. What do I need?’ And we tell you. ‘We need your prescription and pupil distance.’ And you say, ‘Great!’”


“So the [customer] goes into an optical store, sits in the chair. And when they’re done, they say to the optometrist, ‘Can you give my prescription and my pupil distance?’”


He continues: “And what do you think happens? Bells start going off. Fire alarms. Next thing that happens is you get a 10-minute lecture from the doctor about what an idiot and a fool you are to even consider buying glasses online—and 35 reasons why you should never do that.”


Agnew says the doctor’s likely to add, “’And by the way, you’re really being rude to even ask. Because you’ve just sat in my chair and I’m giving you all this personal attention. So you owe me a few extra hundred dollars that you won’t have to pay online!’ It’s this kind of counter-advertising program that we’re always up against.”


Understanding suppliers

Listening to Agnew, you get an understanding as to how today’s eyewear consumer has three price choices. There’s the highest price, which comes from a traditional optical store—the ones that are private practices, not chain stores.


Then there’s the keep-things-inexpensive outlets, be they chain stores like LensCrafters and America’s Best, or newer eyewear providers, like Warby Parker. Agnew explains the kind of glasses available from such outlets:


“What the other stores do is they buy their stuff in China, for like 50¢ a frame and then they put the lenses in it. The ones who do it overseas are paying pennies.” While he believes Warby buys here in the States, even that, says Agnew, means the consumer gets “let’s say, a $2 lens in a fifty cents frame. So you have a product that maybe costs $3---and that’s what’s being sold for $95…and more.”


Quality needn’t be over-priced

Agnew agrees with one thing those lower-price outlets pitch: that eyewear consumers can get quality without paying the full price they’re likely to be charged at private optical practices.


“What we say is, ‘You’re getting the same goods as you’d get in an optical store. The same brands, Essilor lenses. There’s no better quality of lens than what you can get from us. In fact, our lenses are often better than what you’d get in an optical store, because they might be cutting it in the back of the shop without much experience. We’re doing it in a true optical lab.”


He adds, “And we’re doing it about a little more than 50 percent lower price than what you get from an optical store. The exact same thing—the Armani frames, the Essilor Varilux lenses—we’re selling at less than half the price.” The result? That $400 eyewear you admire—frames and lenses—is likely to be $200 via Eyeglasses.com.


It’s not just the frames

There’s another service that many of us don’t think about when it comes to our prescription glasses. “Probably about 40 percent of the lens business in this country is replacement lenses,” says Agnew.


But, he says, getting just your lenses replaced can be tricky. “When you go into a store because you need an update to your lenses, what happens? They sell you a new pair of frames,” he says. Instead, at Eyeglasses.com, “What we do is…you send us your glasses and we’ll replace the lenses and send it back to you.” Thus no need to add the cost of frames to your optical service.


There is much more to understand about buying eyewear, but fortunately there’s lots of info online. That includes the many stories Agnew has gathered (and even written) on the Eyeglasses.com site.###


Wendy Meyeroff started her career in health communications 20+ years ago, including writing for/about the optical industry. She thanks Mark Agnew for the insights provided for this article. If you’d like to be profiled, contact Wendy via her website: www.wmmedcomm.com

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