Eyeglasses occupy a strange space in U.S. consumers’ lives. They are, at first, medical devices that, along with contacts, nearly 60% of the U.S. population needs to properly see, according to the Vision Council of America. But they also are fashion accessories, often a defining personal style statement for many wearers.
But prescription eyeglasses are usually expensive, prohibiting many from buying multiple pairs as they might shoes or other fashionable necessities. This conflict made for a ripe opportunity for Zenni Optical, a San Francisco-based eyewear company that has quietly taken over a huge chunk of the online market for glasses.
The company, which grew its sales 29% in 2017 and is ranked No. 236 in the Internet Retailer 2018 Top 1000, owns more than 1 million square feet of lab space with 1,000 employees tasked to precisely produce lenses for the 15,000 pairs of glasses it sells each day. It expects to hit $200 million in revenue in 2018.
Zenni is a digitally native vertical brand, or DNVB; it started in 2003 with its own designs. It owns its own factories and produces its own styles, which it sells directly to consumers solely through an online storefront.
It has regularly added new frames, offered new lens options and expanded its manufacturing facilities in China. Now, it’s so big that lens manufacturing equipment makers often offer the retailer some of the earliest access to new lens technology, meaning that customers have access to new features like blue-light-blocking lenses that ease eye strain when looking at screens.
All that direct involvement in the supply chain has helped it produce its marquee product: a line of prescription glasses that cost just $6.95. Compare that to perhaps the most famous DNVB eyewear retailer, Warby Parker (No. 174) , which has frames starting at $95. Zenni also sells a wider variety of frames than Warby Parker, with 2,500 frames for men, women and kids compared to Warby Parker’s approximately 500 options for just men and women.
Chief commercial officer Erik Ritchie says that price difference means many of its customers are able to indulge in a few frames that can fit their changing style or for different activities. “What we see with our clientele is that they have four sets of our glasses, and others are closer to 1.5 on average,” he says.
Despite the low price point, there is still friction that Zenni has to overcome to get customers to hit the buy button. Some consumers are reluctant to buy eyeglass online without trying them on. To alleviate that, users can upload a selfie to see how frames scale to their face or choose from a library of models for a rough approximation of their face shape. It also brings in user-generated content from Instagram, pulling in photos of real customers wearing Zenni frames that are tagged with various hashtags.
Prescriptions are another hurdle, with users having to turn to outside help before they can order their new frames. There are companies like Opternative that offer online prescriptions as an alternative to the traditional eye doctor, but Zenni doesn’t have plans to implement such offerings. “There is an online prescription world out there, but the regulatory issue isn’t something we want to deal with,” he says.
Zenni has grown without physical stores, unlike Warby Parker, which uses its storefronts as showrooms for its many styles as well as physical marketing. But Ritchie says Zenni’s marketing is more about word of mouth, which he says is even more valuable for building their brand.
“Our brand awareness is higher [than Warby Parker] in certain areas of the country and with certain demographics,” Ritchie says. The company also has focused on traditional TV ads to boost recognition. Ritchie values the broad reach and ability to target various demographics with television ads.Favorite