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 eyewear.”
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.”