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A Former WNBA Player Refocuses Eyewear E-tailing

Online startup Ditto seeks the middle ground between upstart
eyeglass e-tailers and established brands

By Kate Abbott
     Aug. 17 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- (Corrects the name of
one of Ditto’s partners in the fourth paragraph)
     In recent years, a handful of companies such as Warby
Parker, Lookmatic, and Eyefly have been trying to blow up U.S.
eyeglass retailing by selling their own lines of prescription
glasses for less than $100 online. Their vision (try on frames
virtually, upload your prescription, then wait for them to be
shipped to you) attracted attention for its potential to disrupt
the industry, long dominated by Luxottica Group, which owns such
chains as LensCrafters and Sunglass Hut and holds exclusive
licenses to dozens of designer brands.
     The upstarts’ premise was that virtual try-ons and low
prices would persuade shoppers to forgo pricey brick-and-mortar
stores. “We’re democratizing the process of buying stylish,
high-quality eyewear,” says Lookmatic Executive Director Joe
Cole, whose dad oversaw national retailers that included Pearle
Vision and Sears Optical. “There’s been a cosmic shift toward
buying everything online, and the next logical step is to include
     That cosmic shift is still in its early days. Of the 68.4
million eyeglasses purchased in the U.S. in past year, only 2.7
percent were through online retailers, according to the Vision
Council, an industry trade group. LensCrafters’ senior vice
president of marketing, Gita Chari Mattes, says most shoppers go
online to browse frames but still prefer shopping in-store. “This
isn’t like buying a shirt, where you can choose a small, medium,
or large, and if it doesn’t fit you’ll go return it,” she says.
     Now a new eyewear startup in San Mateo, Calif., is taking a
different approach from its upstart competitors. Rather than sell
its own line of glasses, Ditto partners with 20 eyewear brands,
such as Ray-Ban and Persol. Shoppers can try on hundreds of
frames in videos of themselves, using their webcams. Prices are
comparable to brick-and-mortar stores. “We can coexist, and we
will—whether [retail chains] like it or not,” says Kate Endress,
who launched Ditto in April with former engineers from Google and
Nokia and has raised $3 million. “Certain people want to buy
online, but there’s always a place for a retail location.”
     Endress, a basketball star at Indiana’s Ball State
University who played briefly with the professional Connecticut
Sun prior to an investment banking stint at Citigroup, got her
MBA at Stanford in 2011 before launching Ditto. She says more
than 13,000 try-on videos have been created on the startup’s
site. She won’t disclose sales. “Consumers are ready to be doing
most of their shopping online, and giving people the exact size
and a much bigger selection is going to be the big
differentiator,” says Endress.
     Other traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are integrating
virtual try-on options on their websites: Shoppers visiting J.C.
Penney’s JCP Optical can upload a photo to model frames. TOMS
Shoes offers a similar feature for its eyewear line. And while
Luxottica’s chains haven’t added online try-ons yet, LensCrafters
last year installed in-store simulators.
     Education technology entrepreneur Nick Shalek says buying
glasses at a shop four years ago was “painful.” He brought along
two friends, spent an hour trying on frames, and had to return to
pick up his purchase. So this summer, Shalek logged onto Ditto,
shared several headshots of possible styles with his friends
through Facebook, and settled on a tortoiseshell frame from
fashion designer Derek Lam for $255. Says Shalek: “I loved that
Ditto turns that into a seamless, one-step process.”

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