Zenni keeps its sights on an even larger eyewear market

For decades, buying eyeglasses has been an often-expensive proposition that typically costs hundreds of dollars and involves time-consuming trips to the store. Since 2003, Zenni Optical has been doing everything in its power to turn the act of purchasing eyeglasses on its head.

The ultimate success of Zenni could utterly upend the dynamic of driving to a bricks-and-mortar retail store or to the mall to purchase a pair of glasses. By the company’s estimates, a family of five can save an estimated $25,000 over a 12-year period by shopping at ZenniOptical.com.

Erik Ritchie was formerly Zenni’s chief commercial officer, overseeing the company’s marketing, merchandising, supply chain and IT operations. Ritchie discussed how Zenni became an optical industry giant in just 15 years and the company’s rapid growth plans with STORES contributing writer Bruce Horovitz.

How do you coax people to buy something as personal as eyeglasses online?

It starts with the fact that people are more comfortable buying things online — from clothing to cars — than ever before. We are seeing more and more of this in our category. Our purpose is to make the user experience the best it can be.

Since customers never get to feel the glasses or see them on until they arrive in the mail, do you get a lot of returns?

Not really. We have a really low return rate — about 2 percent. That’s low compared to industry norms.
What is the return policy?

You can return the glasses and get 100 percent store credit — or you can get a 50 percent refund on your purchase price. Our product is a highly customized product, so once a pair of glasses are returned, we can’t re-sell them due to FDA regulations.

Why do customers return glasses?

It’s a wide variety of reasons. We hear everything from they just don’t like them, to they were looking for something different to they don’t like the way they look on their face.

What if glasses break or get damaged after purchase? Can customers send them back for repair?

No. But if your glasses break, we can help you find that pair again. Our price point is such that our customers can afford to replace broken glasses by ordering another pair. Paying $10, $20 or $30 for a pair of kids’ glasses is much easier than paying $300 or $400 or $500 from the store.

The bottom line is, you’re really about folks buying glasses very, very cheaply, right?

We are about eyewear for everyone. Zenni has a big heart and we’re a big tent. Until we came along, glasses were too expensive and a wide swath of the population couldn’t access this critical medical device.

Do you really sell glasses for $6.95?

Yes. That ranks among our top five sellers. We carry about 20 percent of our styles at that price point.

Who buys $6.95 glasses?

I recently had an experience at a trade show coffee bar when a barista saw my glasses and recognized them. When I told her that I worked for Zenni, she started to tear up. She was a mother, and she told me that without Zenni, her kids wouldn’t have glasses.

Who else is a typical Zenni customer?

Folks who are interested in fashion. At our price points, you can afford to buy multiple pairs of glasses. That’s a lot easier to do at $20, $30 or $40 than it is at the mall for $300, $400 or $500.

How can you make a profit from a $6.95 pair of glasses?

We own whole supply chains, so there’s no middleman. We do our own grinding. We own our own labs.

Where are the glasses made?

Our factory is in China. About 89 percent of the glasses sold in the United States are made in China. We are right in the center of excellence for glass manufacturing. Just as Switzerland is known for making great watches, China is known for great glasses. That’s where the talent, material and experts are.

How are the frames priced so low?

We make our own frames, too. We have about 2,500 styles to choose from. We have our own frame manufacturing center and optical lab. We also source frames from other manufacturers, but none are brand names.

How much does a typical customer pay for one pair of Zenni glasses?

The average price is about $40 to $50, for a single vision lens versus $300 or $400 at retail. That includes a free cleaning cloth, case, anti-scratch coating and UV protection. For our $6.95 glasses, you’d pay about $150 in retail stores.

What’s your most popular add-on?

The Beyond UV blue blocker lenses. It blocks high-energy visible blue light and is made with a blue-light-blocking polymer built into the lens material. Many people are sensitive to the damage that can be done with high energy blue light from their electronic devices. About 20 percent of our orders are asking for this $16.95 upgrade. You’d spend about 10 times that for the same upgrade at retail locations.

Are you competing with the local optometrist?

We look at optometrists as being vital to the industry. We are strong believers in people having healthy vision and healthy eyes. If you want to purchase your first pair of glasses from your optometrist, go for it. But when you’re ready for your second, third and fourth pair, we’ll take care of you.

How big can Zenni get?

We just celebrated our 15th anniversary and our sales will hit $200 million this year. But the time we hit our 20th, we think we can be a $1 billion company.

How can you possibly grow that fast?

We already run one of the largest laboratories in the world. We’re in the process of building out a new factory (in China) that would more than double our capacity. We could go from selling 14,000 glasses per day to 28,000.

Where did the name Zenni come from?

The founders came up with the name. They wanted something around the word Zen. But they wanted the name to have a sense of fashion or style.

Since fashion is so vital in your business, how do you stay on top of it?

We are constantly monitoring fashion trends. We also work with an up-and-coming fashion designer, Timo Weiland.

Your website allows consumers to use a “virtual mirror” to see themselves in any of the glasses. How does that work?

You basically take a selfie of yourself. Then there’s a special reference point onto which we superimpose the frames onto your face. We use the distance between your two pupils as that reference point. It’s pretty accurate.

Are there some folks who simply shouldn’t — or can’t — buy their glasses from Zenni?

There are some extreme prescriptions where there’s a serious variance between the two eyes that might not work. But those are outliers. The vast majority of consumers can.

Do men or women use Zenni more frequently?

More women tend to buy from us. It’s probably about a 60-40 split. Women tend to be a little more into fashion than guys.

What’s the typical order?

The average order is for 1.8 pairs of glasses. People like to buy more than one pair at a time. Sometimes the second pair is sunglasses. Other times, it’s the exact same frame, but in a different color.

Any plans for bricks-and-mortar stores?

At the moment, there are no plans. We really have been happy with our success online. We have tried some (temporary) pop-up stores with Timo in New York City. And there’s a college tour where we take a bus around colleges. But we see no need to open a bricks-and-mortar outlet.

What’s ultra-cool in glasses these days?

A lot of people like our magnetic clip-ons. We developed the line that looks super cool so you can’t tell it’s a clip-on.

What about words or emojis on frames?

You can engrave all kinds of things on your glasses. I put my name inside the arm of my glasses, so I know they’re mine. The frames are laser-engraved for $1.95 per character. We have some emojis on the site too. We preclude anything that’s copyrighted and there is a list of profane words we flag, but for the most part, we tend to side on free speech.

Will Zenni be selling anything besides glasses?

I think we’re pretty focused on glasses. If we did anything else, it would be eye-related or eye health. We have no desire to become a sneaker brand.