I remember visiting my dad’s friend at his shop for a pair of spectacles when I was about 7-years-old.
My dad’s friend is an optometrist who runs a small, humble optical shop in Queensway Shopping Centre. He moved to a smaller store in the same place because of rising rental costs – and to be honest, I do feel a tinge of sadness at the situation.
After all, I got my first pair of spectacles at his shop and my first pair of contact lenses were given to me by him.
But nowadays, with newer concept stores like Owndays entering the market and changing the rules of the game, and even familiar names like Nanyang Optical and Spectacle Hut are feeling the pressure to keep up.
Recently, I made a pair of computer lenses for work at a shop in Johor Bahru because it was cheaper, they were able to produce high-index lenses for my 800 degrees eyesight, and I could collect my dream spectacles in less than an hour.
On that trip, my dad asked me if I no longer want to visit his friend for new spectacles any more – and I felt a pang of guilt.
I comforted myself by thinking that perhaps my dad’s friend isn’t so concerned about modernising his business since he has been running it by himself with the help of his assistant for the past few decades.
But other small and traditional optometrists like his face the brunt of the blow. When the new kids on the block can deliver your fresh, new glasses in 20 minutes, how can they compete?
According to Hazel Luo of Hazel Eyecare who is in a similar predicament as my dad’s friend, “I’m the only one here doing the eye test. I don’t have time to cut lenses on the spot.”
What if there was a way to save them from the imminent doom of retail stores?
Two forward-thinking individuals put their brains together and came up with a service to resolve this problem – to help these stores adapt to the current market change and keep them relevant.
A Lofty Vision
Danial Heng spoke to us on this pessimistic trend for traditional optical shops, stating that sales have declined by more than 45 percent since the appearance of e-commerce platforms “and new chainstore, Owndays”.
He is the Head of Growth (Marketing) of Visual Loft, a marketplace for traditional optical shops.
Together with the CEO Lester Lee, and the CTO Adrian Neo, they sought to find out the pain points of the industry, personally meeting these shop owners who were about to call it quits.
However, they found out that despite feeling helpless at their situation, “many of them are interested to dive into e-commerce but lack the skills or knowledge”.
A little background on the team – Danial was the co-founder and former CMO of Swiftback, but it is now acquired by Grab. CEO Lester Lee is also the co-founder of Optometrist Asia Group, and CTO Adrian Neo was the Regional Technical Program Manager of Lazada.
They began raising funds for Visual Loft on 1 April 2017 with a goal of $500,000 and will end before 31 December 2017.
In seven weeks, they raised $340,000 by a mixture of angel investors and ex-GIC members.
The amount raised will be used to build up the team and the products, focusing on the Gross Merchandising Value to “ensure [their] liquidity to minimise [their] burn rate”.
Visual Loft was set up to solve the following problems faced by traditional optical shop owners:
- High rental,
- Manpower issues,
- Outdated traditional workflow in a traditional optical industry, and
- Lack of e-commerce know-how.
It aims to be an enabler for these shops, an online marketplace that lets owners set up their own online shop while giving them access to online payments, deliveries, and using their online Customer Relations Manager (CRM) tool.
The more tech-savvy consumers can also turn to Visual Loft, which in turn connects them to traditional optical shops.
Danial said, “[Customers] can either get their purchase delivered to them or self-pickup.”
Besides helping these retail stores adapt to the change and stay relevant, his platform also consolidates the “fragmented optical industry” which can potentially reach out regionally.
It also gives these retail owners “facilitation and automation of [the] ordering and delivery system”.
He pointed out that Owndays has transparent pricing, “a fast turnover time for production”, and are more “marketing savvy as compared to traditional optical stores” which places more emphasis on aesthetics.
Which, in my opinion, are areas where traditional optical shops don’t make the effort to do, or do not have the knowledge to begin.
Visual Loft wants to be that bridge that covers that gap.
Do You See How It Works?
Well, I spy with my short-sighted pair of eyes, a rather complicated process.
Or that’s what I thought.
With some explaining from Danial, who kindly explained to me the fulfilment system, customers can complete their purchase in four steps or less.
- After choosing his/her desired visual aid, the customer can submit their prescription or upload it to the system;
- If the customer does not know their prescription, they can arrange for a home eye test service or visit any affiliated stores nearest to them;
- Order will be sent to the respective vendors;
- Vendors will fulfil and deliver to customer’s address or notify customer that their order is ready for collection.
The unique home eye test service is free for their customers.
After they make a purchase online… [our] optometrist will head down the customer’s house for the eye check. The information is then sent to our backend for processing. The same process applies for eye checks in-store in our affiliated stores.
Since their launch, they have received positive feedback complimenting their “professional home eye test service” is “convenient and efficient”.
Their product range is larger in variety “as compared to other regular e-commerce platforms” and customers liked that they could get “everything done without leaving home”.
Danial revealed that some of their new features would include having “your very own optometrist at your fingertips” – which I assume that it could be an app that they plan to develop?
Visual Loft’s future plans include acting as a “central kitchen” for these traditional optical shops and collaborating with their suppliers to “provide massive benefits and discounts for on-boarded vendors”.
A Clear Vision Ahead
Thinking about it now, I think my dad’s friend would be receptive of joining this if he was presented with the opportunity.
But I reckon the team at Visual Loft would need some time to get over his initial skepticism.
Danial told me that the team has faced rejection from such retail owners as they don’t have the knowledge to manage online transactions.
Educating vendors on the advantage of going digital is also one of the hurdles they had to overcome as most of them are not tech-savvy, so they tend to question more.
He cited getting local investors as one of the problems they faced.
“Singapore investors are mostly more conservative [than not] so it is hard to convince them [with] a concept,” he explained.
But vendors are growing more enthusiastic now after their launch “and seeing traction”.
On the investors side, they find that trust is easier to establish since they have retail chains and e-commerce stores participating in Visual Loft.
As Danial himself is no stranger to entrepreneurship, I asked him what he would say to other entrepreneurs who are planning to start a new venture.
[Adapt] quickly, [have] perseverance, aggressiveness, and the never-ending will to learn and improve. Always be open-minded. I personally feel [that] the day one stops having the drive to learn, is the day [one has] failed. Anyone can come up with a billion dollar idea, [but] executing the idea well and efficiently is key.
Featured Image Credit: Visual Loft