New vision for optical shops to stay competitive

Older players adopt new strategies, step up online presence to keep up with new entrants

For small optical shops, like Hazel Eyecare in Bishan owned by optometrist Hazel Luo, the competition has been tough. Ms Luo says the rapid expansion of Owndays has eaten into the shop's pool of customers.
For small optical shops, like Hazel Eyecare in Bishan owned by optometrist Hazel Luo, the competition has been tough. Ms Luo says the rapid expansion of Owndays has eaten into the shop's pool of customers. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Making a pair of spectacles is now faster, cheaper and more convenient at some traditional optical shops here, as they have changed tack to keep up with newer entrants in the market.

The 20-year-old Spectacle Hut, the largest optical chain with 36 outlets, recently slashed the prices of 700 designer items in its stores as part of seasonal price adjustments.

The 16-outlet Nanyang Optical, which has been around since the 1960s, plans to start an online platform. And the eight-year-old Eyecare Studio chain bought an edging machine that can make glasses within 30 minutes at its third outlet that opened in Seletar Mall last year.

Customers have usually had to wait between a few days and more than a week to collect their glasses after placing an order.

But expectations changed in July 2013 when Japanese optical chain Owndays opened its first shop. It makes its own glasses, stocks up to 3,000 lenses in each of its 18 stores, and promises to deliver glasses 20 minutes after payment.

In 2014, Filipino firm Four Eyes launched its website, selling self- designed eyewear and frames.

Such competition has forced traditional optical shops to rethink their strategies. Spectacle Hut lowered prices of its branded eyewear, setting itself apart from Owndays, which has only its in-house brand.

A pair of Ray-Ban RX5154 now costs $210, down 30 per cent from $300. An Oakley OX8069 is $185, down 26 per cent from $249.

Said a spokesman: "The traditional optical shops are affected by competition from brands like Owndays and online optical (shops).

"Fortunately for Spectacle Hut, we are positioned differently."

Nanyang Optical also offers a 20-minute service at its Orchard Road outlet. But the brand's focus is on quality and not fast service, said managing director Bernard Yang.

"To me Owndays is like going for fast food. At Nanyang we are more like a restaurant where food is cooked to order. We can tailor and customise to your needs," he said.

Its online store will "cater to a group of consumers who like to browse and see online before going down to our store to see and touch the product", he added.

Owndays told The Straits Times that its promise to customers is that their glasses will be delivered to them 20 minutes after payment is completed. The 20 minutes "does not include the time taken to conduct eye checks", said its spokesman. Eye tests are conducted by licensed opticians, he added.

The Singapore Optometric Association (SOA) noted that business models which rely on fast turnaround time mainly deal with prescriptions that are straightforward, without features such as photochromatic lenses, tinted lenses and progressive lenses. It estimated that there are 900 optical shops here.

A report by Euromonitor International found that last year, only 2 per cent of spectacles sold here were bought online. This is expected to grow as people seek novelty and competitive prices, it added.

SOA said physical shops have the advantage of providing "reliable and comprehensive after-sales service" such as frame adjustments and can also better match spectacles and lenses to individuals.

The Euromonitor report noted that demand for eyewear remains strong in Singapore, where 40 per cent of the population is myopic.

It also noted that consumers are increasingly buying luxury brands. Also trending is the practice of owning multiple pairs to match different outfits and occasions.

For small players, such as Hazel Eyecare, which has just one outlet in Bishan, the rapid expansion of Owndays has eaten into its pool of customers. Offering a quicker service is not an option for its owner Hazel Luo, 32, an optometrist.

"I'm the only one here doing the eye test. I don't have time to cut lenses on the spot," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline New vision for optical shops to stay competitive. Subscribe