Indie View: Q&A with Jason Kirk, MD of Kirk&Kirk

Traditionally, independent opticians have occupied a unique and critical role in the community as both retailers and health providers. However, this role has increasingly been threatened. As strong demand for eyewear attracts new corporate investment, optical retail has become increasingly polarized, concentrated and competitive. To discuss these dynamics and how independents can respond to them, we sat down with Jason Kirk, MD of British eyewear brand Kirk & Kirk.

What are the origins of Kirk & Kirk?

With my grandfather Sidney, his brother Percy and my parents being opticians, my family has been in optics for over a hundred years. I stumbled into it in 1992 when I found a box of my grandfather’s original designs in my father’s practice. Karen, my partner, was a graphic designer so the combination of her creativity and my optical genes was potent. Through the last 25 years we have designed frames, owned and run factories and had three retail stores.

What are the major challenges faced today by the independent optician?

Our industry communication is weak, largely because we have focused, particularly in Europe, on the medical aspect of our profession and neglected the commercial side. Today, the optician needs to be a master at every aspect of their business, offering a reason why people should spend their money with them and not buy inexpensive products through a chain store.

The optical groups spend vast sums advertising and communicating their message which is largely focused around price, undercutting the independent who is largely ill-equipped to explain their value proposition.

Optical retail in Western Europe has seen a growing degree of concentration, how is this likely to develop in the future?

The large chains dominate optical retail. In the US we have seen groups such as My Eye Doctor buying up high-end independent stores to create smaller independent style groups and this will happen in Europe, too.

Right now, the market is wide open and budget retailers are opening and masking cheap products behind glossy interiors. They are successful at this because the independent does not know how to respond.

The massive marketing budgets of the large groups are convincing the public that they do not need to spend a great deal of money on frames and lenses and, until the independent can find its voice, those large groups will continue to grow and dominate.

Overall, how has the optical trade responded to the major corporate and consumer trends in eyewear?

There has been a polarisation in independent optics. Retailers have decided to fight their battle either at the top end, by offering exceptional products and services, or at the bottom end trying to compete on price.

The most successful strategy at the high end has been to focus on a very clear brand message so that the consumer recognises what they are paying for. Here, independent opticians focus on a handful of brands, going deep into those collections and relating their brand stories with clarity and confidence.

At the low end, independents are fighting a losing battle. Commercial ‘name brands’ are always cheaper online or in a chain store; you simply cannot compete. Once the customer finds a product cheaper online than in-store, they lose confidence in you as a retailer and do not trust any part of the transaction.

It is worth pointing out here that the transaction has two major components for the customer; the first is medical. The public should have unerring confidence in your ability as a qualified practitioner to prescribe and offer the right lenses at the right price and quality.

The second part is ‘fashion’ purchase. The frame that they wear will dictate the way that they look and appear for the next couple of years. With a few exceptions, independent opticians rarely present themselves and their stores in a way that makes the public feel confident in the ‘styling’ of their eyewear.

What role do you believe e-commerce will play in the optical trade of the future?

E-commerce is part of our culture and here to stay. Our consumer expects online communication and the choice of making their transactions online. At the very least, they will research online before even choosing which retailers to visit.

They will select frames, order contact lenses, repeat frames or prescriptions online. They can find a frame in-store and buy it online. Online eye tests are not yet up to the medical standards that we should insist on but they are not far away and, once again, independent retailers will have to convince the public to spend £80 on an eye test when they can get one for free online and order their frames and lenses at the same time.

What are some tangible steps retailers can take today to boost margins, footfall and customer loyalty?

In my opinion, the only route for the independent is to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Choose your weapons – you cannot compete on price so offer products that your competitors do not have.

Specsavers, Boots, and Vision Express carry the major name brands so don’t bother trying to compete. Identify your target audience and visit international trade shows to find brands that will inspire and excite your potential audience. If you want higher margins, you need to offer price positive products. Frames are the most visible and comprehensible products that you offer in-store.

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