What I learnt about taking on a high street giant
Convincing shopping centres to let you open a site is still not easy
Despite the vacancies left by retailers that have gone out of business, it is really hard to get into shopping malls if you’re not a recognised brand. When we were looking for our first site, we found it extremely difficult to talk to the right person. What got us into our first site in the Trafford Centre in Manchester was a bit of luck — I had been given the name of a senior person there by someone I knew, and the day I spoke to him it turned out his son had broken his glasses. Our business model was that we could make a pair of glasses in 20 minutes, but he had been told it would take days to get his son’s specs fixed. Luckily I had the right lens in stock and was able to show we could do it as fast as we said. After that, we signed an initial six-month contract.
Once we were in the Trafford Centre, we were able to open a second kiosk in Manchester in the Arndale Centre within a year, and then I knew I wanted to get into London. Because we had a track record, we started to get calls from owners there including Westfield. Our goal is to get to between 100 and 150 kiosks, using a franchise model. Of our 11 stores to date, three are franchises.
Contacts and experience go a long way
I had worked in my parents’ optician since I was seven years old, and ran my own shop for two decades. I was sure there was a gap between online, which offered good prices but with no customer service, and the big high street retailers, which advertised glasses for £15 but when you go in there’s everything up to £900. They have to cover the cost of the opticians doing the eye tests, plus the store space, so they can’t be as cheap as online.
I had got to know the factories where the main manufacturers have their frames made, and I was able to approach them about making frames for me, which I could sell more cheaply because we only stock our own brand and wouldn’t have the same marketing overheads as designer brands. For lenses and the equipment to make glasses in-store, I approached Essilor, also a company I had worked with for a long time. They knew my past sales record, so were willing to negotiate on a rate I could afford for the new business.
I treated the new business like it was my only chance
Barnes approaches other opticians when he sets up a kiosk to explain his business model
I kept my previous business open for the first year after setting up Pop Specs. But I moved from my home in Chester and lived in a room in a shared house in Manchester. I needed to feel like everything was on the line. When we opened in May 2021, people were only gradually starting to come back to shopping in person, and the weather was good so no one really wanted to go to a shopping centre. My co-founder, Lina, also caught Covid just as we opened so I was there on my own, thinking, “I had a three-month waiting list in my last shop”.
I talked to everyone who stopped to have a look, and when we did have a customer I put a handwritten note in the case with the new glasses. That’s something we still do now. Eventually, word of mouth started to spread that we could make glasses the same day.
We haven’t raised outside funding — every shop has to pay its way, and helps to pay for the next one.
Sometimes working with your rivals can pay off
Barnes, had run his own high-end optician’s shop in Chester for 20 years before he met Tejoprayitno on an MBA course. The pair saw an opportunity to sell glasses more cheaply than big high street names such as Specsavers by not employing in-store opticians to carry out eye tests and to compete with online retailers by offering a same-day service and the chance to try glasses on in person.
People have to come to us with their glasses prescriptions, and I knew this would start to annoy the opticians who offer free or cheaper eye tests with the expectation that people will buy their glasses in the same shop. We’re the little guy, so when we open a new site I go to the big opticians nearby and tell them what we’re doing, and position us as another rival to online. Now, some of the big chains will pay us to make glasses quickly for customers who really need them.